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Alvaro Uribe and The Future of Colombia’s Democratic Institutions

Written by Dr. Maria Velez de Berliner
June 10, 2008

Today 84% of Colombians are willing to reelect Alvaro Uribe to a consecutive, third presidential period, beginning in 2010.  Were he to be reelected, Uribe will have served for 12 consecutive years, until 2014. In their drive to reelect Uribe, most Colombians seem to prefer the relative security Uribe has delivered over the central issue for the country’s future:  What will tampering with the Constitution once more, to favor one man’s political inclinations, do to the democratic institutions of a country that, up to Uribe, proudly proclaimed its democratic, constitutional traditions? I spoke recently with a conservative Colombian Colleague, one who opposed Uribe in the last two election. When I said a third term would make Uribe appear as a constitutional dictator, my colleague responded: “We will prefer an elected dictator without the FARC over a democratic president with the FARC.”  I was surprised, but I knew he spoke for an overwhelming majority of Colombians.

Why a Third Term?

Uribe’s recent military successes against the FARC, and the economic progress and stability enjoyed by Colombia’s private sector in the last six years, lead to what Colombians believe today: Uribe needs a consecutive, third term to complete the creation of “citizens’ security,” to finish eliminating the FARC, as Uribe said, “no matter where they are,” and to restore lasting peace and prosperity. Many Colombians see no viable alternative to Uribe’s reelection. None of the other candidates -- Juan Manuel Santos, Francisco Santos and Rafael Pardo -- have the hold Uribe has on the electorate. Germán Vargas Lleras,Uribe’s strong supporter and backer of reelection to a second Uribe term, left Uribe’s de la U party to join the opposition, Cambio Radical. Vargas Lleras does not have the electoral support Uribe has, either. Reelection to a third, consecutive term requires the constitution be amended to accommodate one person, Uribe. However, moving a constitutional amendment through the Columbian Congress seems difficult today. The Congress is in disarray. Several Uribe supporters in the Senate and the House of Representatives, as well as their their suplentes (elected replacements), are in jail or under criminal investigation for collaboration with the Auto-Defensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). Time is also running out to approve a constitutional amendment in the current legislative session. As a result, reelection supporters, led by Luis Guillermo Giraldo, are resorting to a second, expedient way to reform the constitution: direct democracy via a national referendum, for which they are collecting signatures nationwide. It is interesting to note direct democracy through referendum was also the legal loophole President Chávez used to pursue reelection in Venezuela in December 2007. Chávez lost. In contrast, Uribe’s chances of losing are nil under present circumstances. The reelection referendum will approve or reject:
Quien haya ejercido la Presidencia de la República por dos períodos constitucionales, podrá ser elegido para un nuevo período.” (Whoever has been president of the Republic for two constitutional terms may be elected to a new term).
If the referendum passes by an absolute majority as expected, the constitution will be amended, and Uribe can win by a landslide. Uribe has been less than clear on whether he will accept nomination to a third term. But he has stated he that would not permit “the opposition to deliver the country to the FARC or destroy the logros (achievements) of his two mandates.” This most likely means Uribe will continue his strategy of calling the opposition “guerrilla supporters,” which will resonate positively among an electorate tired of 40 years of FARC attacks, violence, and disorder. Even the few who oppose Uribe recognize he is close to accomplishing what he promised in his first presidential run: to eliminate the FARC and ensure relative citizens’ security. The FARC is not eliminated, yet. However, with ample logistics, intelligence, and weapons assistance by the USA, Uribe has it on the run into Ecuador, Perú, and Venezuela. This is no small feat, although Uribe had to attack Ecuador to get rid of FARC commander Raúl Reyes. Uribe received only a slap on the wrist from the international community that applauded Uribe’s incursion into a sovereign neighbor. No Colombian government had dared attack the directorate of the FARC within Colombia territory, despite knowing who they were, where they were, and what they were doing.

The Future of Colombia’s Democratic Institutions

There is no doubt Uribe’s third period will reassure foreign direct investors who have poured billions and technology into Colombia in the last six years. It will also reassure Colombians of a continuation of the security they have under Uribe, particularly in the major urban areas, if one discounts the violent activities of Las Aguilas Negras, Nueva Generación, Patria Nueva, and other regrouped paramilitaries and guerrillas who demobilized under the Law of Justice and Peace. It is understandable that Colombians want to keep Uribe in power. He is the only president in the country’s history who has visited municipalities, listened to citizens, ensure his ministers deliver what they promise, and attacked the guerrillas. However, Uribe’s charisma, strength of personality, and superior political acumen also led to a deinstitutionalization of Colombia. All political institutions are now centered on one man, Uribe. The judiciary is the most affected by Uribe’s open, verbal attacks against judges who moved against Uribe’s supporters in Congress and government, and some members of Uribe’s family, to investigate alleged criminal activities, and enforce the law. Uribe’s public squabbles with and denigrating comments against the Supreme Court and the highest tribunals have reduced the credibility of the judiciary, which was not high to begin with. These attacks have politicized the judiciary, and many Colombians believe some judges are socialist sympathizers and guerrilla supporters because they have contested the legality of some of Uribe’s official actions. Despite persistent rumors against Uribe, he is not under investigation and no criminal conduct has been proven against him. However, the levels of private and public corruption, trafficking in influences, drugs, arms, and people, vote buying, and other illegalities have never been higher than in the last six years. Many believe these illegalities and crimes would not have been known if Uribe had not allowed and demanded their investigation and prosecution. The truth is that many Colombians knew of these law violations and their perpetrators, but chose to look the other way. Also, there has been a concerted effort to tie the opposition to the FARC and other criminal groups. This is a dangerous political game in Colombia, where the FARC has been a proven enemy of the state and society. Calling the opposition the enemy hits at the cornerstone of democracy: A viable, organized opposition that leads to an orderly transfer of government when the current government has lost credibility, has fulfilled its mission, or when a more relevant alternative prevails at the ballot box at the end of a constitutional, presidential term. The political tactic of demonizing the enemy contributed to Colombia’s military dictatorship in the late 1950s, and to other dictatorships in Latin America. The demonization of the small Colombian opposition is doubly worrisome because it is unwarranted. Opposition leaders, such as Luis Eduardo “Lucho” Garzón, Samuel Moreno, Carlos Gaviria, and Gabriel Gacia Peña, are qualified men, capable of running Colombia effectively, and of attacking the FARC and sundry criminals, too. Despite the socio-democratic leaning of some, they are neither guerrilla militants nor guerrilla sympathizers. Ironically, the personal strengths that lie behind Uribe’s success create a weakness in the Colombian political spectrum. Uribe’s authoritarian micromanagement has stunted the emergence of younger leaders and new ideas. Despite his remarkable performance, Uribe will not stay in office forever, though many may wish it so. He will be replaced someday, but by who? Uribe has not fulfilled the one requirement of a true leader: ensure orderly succession and do not create a cadre of unquestioning followers in his own image, which is what Colombia has today. When a high official in the speculated line of possible successors declared he “will follow Uribe no matter what,” the official showed his willingness to follow without questions. This seems to indicate he would be remiss to challenge Uribe. However, questioning and challenging of those in positions of power are central to lasting democracy and to the system of checks and balances that nurtures it.

Need of New Leadership

If Uribe is to leave a lasting legacy of peace and order, Colombians need to take the blinders off. They need to look beyond the apparent comfort of the present to the challenges of the future. They need new leaders who can unify the majority of Colombians along their common interests, not behind one man. They need leaders who can provide what democratic governments are elected to deliver: the creation of opportunities for the economic advancement and political maturity of the majority, and a free market of ideas, goods, and services, as members of a larger world community. Despite Uribe’s achievements, Colombians can’t afford to overlook some important components of its reality. A majority of them work in the informal sector; degreed professional are under or unemployed; their historic proclivity for the violent settlement of disputes continues unabated amid unparalleled influence trafficking, drug trafficking, and dependence on a single, major customer: the USA. Two million Colombians are internally displaced, without means to meet basic needs. Victims of violence are likely to remain uncompensated, or compensated with irrisory goods or unproductive lands. Right now, a majority of Colombians, including the middle class, are striving to make ends meet. Displacements, murders, and assaults are reemerging in the countryside, which lead some to question the permanence of citizens’ security. Demobilized paramilitaries and guerrillas are forming new criminal gangs. Seldom a week goes by without a police or military officer being found with his/her hand in the till, indicated for malfeasance, or investigated for association with criminal groups. Members of the AUC and the FARC have infiltrated the security and intelligence agencies. The parapolítica and farcapolítica scandals continue unabated. There are indications the constitutional reform that led to Uribe’s second term in 2004 was passed as a result of congressional vote buying. To solve its entrenched problems, Colombia needs future leaders who will place the country within a truly global community, not only in reference to the FARC and its hostages, while respecting democratic institutions and abiding by the law. A new leadership that sees the transfer of power as a necessary condition to the political maturity and stability of the country. It will be Uribe’s responsibility in a third term to create the political space the new leaders need to emerge and rise to power. Otherwise, Uribe risks being perceived as a Chávez-like president, who resorted to the referendum loophole to seek reelection. Chávez’s referendum failed in December 2007 under pressure from a reinvigorated opposition. Alberto Fujimori’s third term in Perú disintegrated under the weight of corruption fostered and maintained by power unchecked by democratic institutions in his two previous terms. So are the histories of the 70 years of PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institutional) in México and the Colorado Party in Paraguay. Not to mention the Peronistas-Kirchner rotation of presidential power in Argentina. If a similar situation develops in Colombia, it would be a tragedy for the country’s future, and for Uribe.

One Response to “Alvaro Uribe and The Future of Colombia’s Democratic Institutions”

  1. Chacha | August 19, 2015, 4:55 am

    Uribe helped win Colombia’s senocd war of independence. He may not be the one to govern Colombia’s peace. The point that Colombians are tired of conflict maybe so, but it fades with the coming of a new generation. This generation none the wiser, seem more than content to scribble such rhetoric upon walls without the full knowledge of what horrors the alternative would bring. There seems a whole new youth willing to do it all over again. And even worse, a whole wave of ideological (and better off) Europeans and North American’s willing to put Colombia through it again. The only thing I would agree with Karl Marx on would be that, history repeats itself. It’s only too unfortunate that the FARC are entering into history themselves. For this, if there is an individual we should thank, it would be Uribe.

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