When Álvaro Uribe became president of Colombia in 2002, guerrillas were closing in on the major cities, and travel wasn’t safe. José Camilo Vásquez, a history teacher in Bogotá, recalls being unable to visit his farm, one hour outside the capital. Because of the threat of kidnapping or violence, “it was too complicated,” he says. Unlike his predecessors, the right-wing Uribe refused to negotiate with leftist rebels. Security forces pushed them back into the jungle, freeing up the roads. After the crackdown, says Vásquez, 28, “I could go back again.”
Better security has translated into economic gains, a tourism boom, and an enhanced international profile for the South American country. Weary of an internal conflict now over four decades old, citizens have welcomed Uribe’s hardline stance; he’s enjoyed approval ratings of over 70 per cent. Considered a good neighbour in a bad neighbourhood, Uribe has also benefitted from close ties with Washington. Under the anti-drug initiative Plan Colombia, the U.S. has funnelled over $6 billion into the country since 2000, allowing Uribe to put strong military pressure on the highest-profile rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Since 2002, several top commanders have been captured or killed, their numbers have been cut in half to about 10,000 today, and dozens of hostages have been freed.
As well, the Uribe administration negotiated the demobilization of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary group—32,000 fighters surrendered “as a bloc,” says Markus Schultze-Kraft, the Bogotá-based director of the Latin America and Caribbean Program at the International Crisis Group (ICG). “Before Uribe’s election, the feeling was that the country was in chaos,” says Pilar Riaño-Alcalá, a Colombian-born anthropologist at the University of British Columbia. “Now, there’s a sense he has everything under control.”
With Uribe’s steady hand, Colombia’s image abroad has gotten a makeover. He lobbied Washington to declare the coastal city of Cartagena safe for travel, installing security cameras in its tourist areas; it’s now a frequent port of call for cruise ships. In the past five years, tourists to Colombia have doubled: 44,300 Canadians visited in 2008, up from 25,100 in 2002. Foreign investment, too, has climbed. Steady growth has helped the country slash poverty by 20 per cent, and cut unemployment by 25 per cent, since 2002. At least six companies and investment groups have donated $350,000 to the campaign to keep Uribe in power, notes a new ICG report. (The economy has been hurt by Uribe’s sparring with leftist regimes in Venezuela and Ecuador, which the ICG calls its most economically active borders: exports to Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela fell 56 per cent in October, compared to the year before.)
But critics say he’s turned a blind eye to newly emerging armed groups, some with ties to the right-wing paramilitaries Uribe insists have disbanded. The current security policy “fails to respect these aren’t just criminal gangs,” Schultze-Kraft says. “These people continue to wear uniforms; they continue to have a chain of command; they continue to have access to heavy weapons.” The issue of paramilitaries has caused other government headaches, too: in the “parapolitics scandal,” dozens of politicians, including members of Congress, were arrested after ties to paramilitary death squads were revealed. Some have been sentenced to prison terms.
Uribe’s staunch refusal to negotiate with the FARC has also drawn fire. Instead of brokering a deal, he aims to splinter the group, then force it to surrender. Military pressure has driven guerrillas out of the cities, and into the jungle. It’s a tactic that’s popular with urban voters—in one 2008 poll cited in an ICG report, 96 per cent rejected the FARC—but creates turmoil in more remote areas. About 380,000 people were forced to flee their homes in 2008, up over 24 per cent from 2007, which “belies claims that the country has overcome its troubled past,” says Marcelo Pollack, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Americas program. And the fight against the FARC has also seen scandal. In the “false positives” affair, soldiers were said to have murdered innocent civilians, then reported them as guerrillas killed in combat. (It’s now under investigation.)
Most recently, Uribe was accused of handing out state money to his friends and allies, including a beauty queen who received an agricultural subsidy, although she owned no land. But even that barely dented his popularity—or an ongoing campaign to have him stay in power. He has already managed to change the constitution once, allowing him to run for a second term (in Colombia, elected officials are not allowed to run for consecutive terms). Now, with a vote due in May, supporters, called “Uribistas,” are pushing for an amendment to let him stand for a third. In Colombia, held up as one of Latin America’s strongest democracies, it’s got people asking a difficult question, Vásquez says: “Do peace and order rank above the constitution?”
This month, the Constitutional Court is expected to rule on whether Uribe can stand again. The president hasn’t confirmed whether he’d do it, but he has yet to anoint a successor, and no clear contenders have emerged. Vásquez, for one, senses an uneasiness about a possible third term, even among those who support Uribe. Riaño-Alcalá agrees. “I saw a poster in Medellín, saying, ‘I am a Uribista, but not a re-electionist,’ ” she says. “Even those close to him say a third term goes against democracy.” And in a democracy, no one leader is irreplaceable.