Following the failed attempts of the Andrés Pastrana government (1998-2002) to achieve peace in Colombia by negotiating with FARC and other guerrilla groups, the nation’s voters responded strongly to the promises of a hardline approach given by Álvaro Uribe Vélez in the 2002 presidential elections. Uribe was elected in May 2002, and took office in August of that year as leader of the right-wing Colombia Primero coalition, vowing to get tough with the country’s left-wing insurgents, improve the country’s economy, and bring “democratic security for all.”
Uribe himself is considered a disciplined, hard-working, and scholarly man. Although his father was murdered, he says, by leftist insurgents, he adds that he bears no bitterness and only wishes to serve his country. He has extensive experience in Colombian politics at the local and provincial levels, having served as mayor of Medellín in 1982 and governor of his home province of Antioquia from 1995-97.
Much of his career history shows important successes, but is also controversial. His time as governor of Antioquia was marked by substantial governmental gains of territory from the FARC guerrillas. However, this was achieved, in part, through creation of controversial civilian militias (see side bar). Another aspect of his past that dogged him as a candidate, and has resurfaced in a recently released 1991 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report, are allegations that Uribe was a staunch ally of the Medellín cartel and a personal friend of its kingpin, Pablo Escobar. The U.S. DIA report adds that, as a senator, Uribe worked against extradition of Colombian traffickers, and that his father, Alberto Uribe, was murdered because of his son’s ties to drugs.
Various U.S. officials have denied the contents of the report, emphasizing that it contains unverified information. Uribe himself has responded that he was studying at Harvard at the time, and that his father was killed resisting Marxist rebels who were trying to kidnap him. While the allegations may provoke additional research and investigation, some experts on Colombia emphasize that the country has been, at times, so dominated by the drug trade that contacts between aspiring politicians and drug traffickers are unsurprising.
However, these and other criticisms have not been decisive factors. Despite important political gaffes that have left much of Uribe’s reform agenda unresolved, voters seem generally satisfied that his government is making progress in important areas. Uribe’s enemies have also expressed their opinions: since becoming president, he has survived at least four assassination attempts.
The progress of the security campaign has been measured. The slaughter of peasants that was common throughout the 1990s has become far less frequent since Uribe took power — despite a recent massacre, by FARC guerrillas, of farmers believed to be collaborating with the paramilitaries. In December of 2002, the government signed a cease-fire agreement with the AUC, and in the summer of 2004, began demobilization talks with the paramilitaries. The cease-fire with the AUC, however, has often been broken. In fact, violence appears to have intensified in some areas of the country that both FARC and AUC see as strategic, such as the Norte de Santander region. But, overall, the violence has been reduced. Though it is difficult to confirm all claims, the government seems confident that it has reduced the strength of the FARC by about 15 percent.
Photo of President Uribe, addressing an audience at a conference in the city of Neiva, pledges to work to eliminate the threat of guerrilla and paramilitary violence.
President Uribe, addressing an audience at a conference in the city of Neiva, pledges to work to eliminate the threat of guerrilla and paramilitary violence.
Photo: October Films
Corruption is a chronic problem, with all aspects of the ongoing civil conflict exerting a distorting force on the nation’s law and governance. In the spring of 2004, it was reported that justice officials opened criminal investigations against eight current and former members of the attorney general’s office for aiding drug traffickers, paramilitaries, and rebels.
And another important part of Uribe’s agenda, the economy, is troubled. A combination of slow growth, deficit spending, an expensive security buildup, and falling currency caused the nation’s debt-to-GDP ratios to increase throughout the 1990s. Uribe has managed to bring some improvement, and he is still trying to reform taxes and the state pension system, while controlling state spending but he has thus far been unable to push most of these through congress.
On November 30, 2004 Colombia’s Congress passed an amendment that permits President Uribe to run for re-election in 2006. The bill states that presidents are now allowed to serve two consecutive, four-year terms. The Colombian Constitutional Court will be debating the validity of this law in the coming months, and there is therefore a chance that the bill will be overturned. However, if the law stands, according to a Gallup poll, 72.2 percent of Colombians would vote for Uribe’s reelection. These new developments put Uribe in a potentially favorable position; if he seeks and attains reelection he will have more power to push legislation now considered controversial and politically risky and congress will have less influence over his actions. The U.S. government is an important ally for him as it currently supplies $700 million per year, much of it in military aid.