Colombia’s Uribe: riding for a fall?

After his dramatic successes against the FARC guerrillas, Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, is riding high in popularity and looking towards a possible third term. But beneath the surface, things are not as they seem and troubles face George Bush's best ally in the Americas

July 22, 2008 · 14 min read

Beginnings and ends in history or politics are often disputable, ill defined. Is the much publicised liberation of Ingrid Betancourt simply the end of a kidnapping, or the beginning of a presidential candidacy? Is it the apotheosis of Alvaro Uribe as the man who beat the FARC, or the beginning of the end of the war that brought him to power, and of the justification for his continued position as the iron fist of Colombia? At this point no one can be certain; events move rapidly but their effects are often difficult to define even decades after the fact. As Zhou Enlai famously said when asked about the importance of the French Revolution, ‘it’s too early to tell.’

Whatever the long term implications, in the short term the freeing of Betancourt was clearly the masterstroke that Uribe needed to extricate himself from the most difficult period of his two consecutive presidencies. Despite being supported by 70 to 80 per cent of the population, until the dramatic rescue of Betancourt the Colombian head of state had been under attack from various quarters and all the signs pointed to a troubled end to his second presidency. Now, at least in the immediate future, Uribe’s popularity is likely to rise to unprecedented levels.

Not least amongst the president’s problems had been his battle with the former head of the country’s supreme sourt, César Julio Valencia, who accused him of political interference in the case against ex congressional president Mario Uribe, his cousin and long time close political advisor. The ex-legislator is in jail charged with having links to paramilitary groups. Worse still, this is far from being the only case of its kind. The president’s relative is just one of 33 national political representatives now remanded on similar charges; another 52 are under investigation for links to right wing armed groups. A third of the Colombian legislature is presently under investigation or already in jail. The majority are from parties allied with the government.

The Colombian leader has recently been making efforts to distance himself from his one time allies. Despite backing off from ’empty chair’ proposals that would have punished parties and congressional deputies with links to paramilitarism and/or the drug trade, Uribe still has plans for political reform that will provide him with the ‘independent’ status that brought him to the forefront of Colombian politics.

More difficult are the declarations of ex congresswoman Yidis Medina. Medina has accused government members, including ex interior minister Sabas Pretelt, of having bought votes, including her own, in order to swing an extremely tight congressional vote in favour of a change in the constitution. The amendment allowed Uribe to run for the second presidential mandate that he is now exercising. Three people have already been arrested in the case, and Medina herself has been sentenced to 47 months house arrest by the supreme court. But despite being strongly implicated by the court’s judgment, the president is likely to escape censure as he can only be investigated and judged by Congress. Given the present balance of power, action appears extremely unlikely.

It is unclear what motivated Medina to denounce the president and his group, and then hand herself over to the police. Some of the president’s supporters are claiming that the jailed paramilitary leaders are responsible, seeking revenge for what they see as a betrayal of the conditions under which they turned themselves in. There may be something in this. Uribe is presently under investigation for links to paramilitary organisations after jailed paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso declared that a group of the right wing irregulars met in Uribe’s house to plan a massacre. He denies the charge, classifying it as ridiculous.

It is the type of response he has used before, in particular regarding reputed links to the now defunct drug lord, Pablo Escobar, and the equally defunct Medellin Cartel. According to the 2007 book, Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar, written by television reporter and Escobar’s one time lover Virginia Vallejo, Colombia’s most famous drug trafficker once credited the then director of civil aviation with providing all the permits necessary for the private airstrip he used to ship his cocaine to the United States. The book is dreadful, but its incriminating statements led Uribe to accuse Gonzalo Guillén, correspondent of the US-based New Herald, of masterminding the publication. Guillén fled Colombia after receiving threats on his life. Vallejo is also in the United States.

The white knight

Most presidents would have withered in the presence of this welter of accusations, links and conjecture. But Uribe marches on, retaliating at every opportunity. The counter offensive has been dramatic: the ex president of the supreme court now finds himself on the wrong end of a judicial proceeding; the supreme court itself is accused of being compromised by links to paramilitaries; and 14 paramilitary leaders were arbitrarily extradited to the United States on charges of drug trafficking.

César Julio Valencia is keeping to himself these days, but the families of the victims of the paramilitaries have been vocal. They have been quick to condemn the extradition on the grounds that the truth about the paras and their activities will now never be known. The Colombian Commission of Jurists has also criticized the extradition, saying it shows the Colombian state ‘does not have the capacity or the will to carry out the investigation and trial of the serious crimes committed against humanity by these people’, while adding that ‘the extradition for drug offences could easily have been carried out after a judicial process in Colombia’. According to the Commission, over the past five years 3,500 killings and forced disappearances have been attributed to the paramilitary groups by victims’ families, making a mockery of the demobilisation process.

The Inter American Commission on Human Rights stated that the extraditions might also interfere with efforts to determine the links between US agents and the paramilitaries. Perhaps that’s the point. One judicially directed stone kills a number of different birds, above all the possibility that in Colombia one could sing, allowing damaging revelations to find their way into the press and further complicate the passage of the stalled Free Trade Agreement with the United States. And business is the president’s major ally.

The process in the United States is strictly drug related and while the Colombian authorities do claim that they will continue to work with the extradited men, there is little confidence that anything major will come of any future investigations. It would hardly be in the interests of the jailed men to incriminate themselves further. Whatever the outcome, the tumult over the paramilitaries and their influence has had major political consequences for some of the higher ranking players, but at the grass roots level it is life and death as normal for the paramilitaries and right wing squads. Not that it goes unnoticed. The Presidency of the European Commission recently took the unusual measure of publicly condemning the continuing pressure on human rights workers and social movement leaders in Colombia, five of whom have been killed in the space of a few weeks. It is a welcome move, but the European Union is a long way away.

Thank you neighbour

Ecuador and Venezuela are much closer. Maintaining a state of patriotic excitement over the two countries’ supposed ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has helped to shore up public support and dampen criticism. The major source of information for the accusations against Colombia’s two neighbours has been the computers, hard drives and USB devices that according to Colombian sources were found in the camp where FARC commander Raul Reyes was killed on 1 March.

On 15 May, Interpol presented its report on the computers. According to executive director Ronald Noble, no evidence was found of interference in the eight pieces of equipment (three computers, three USB devices, and two external disc drives) found after the raid on the camp established on the Ecuadorian side of the common border by Reyes and a group of FARC combatants.

No evidence was found, but as Poirot might say, lack of evidence is not proof of non intervention, simply proof of lack of evidence. Indeed, according to Interpol, the ‘Reyes’ computers, hard drives and USB devices were repeatedly interfered intervened between 1 March, when the raid took place, and 3 March, when the evidence was handed over to the Colombian Police for custody. In all, 273 system files were created, 373 user and system files opened, 786 system files changed and 488 files suppressed.

The veracity of the contents of the files is still open to debate. Points of view depend on politics and on the belief that it is impossible to alter a file without leaving a trace. As Interpol itself pointed out in the recommendations contained in its report: ‘Law enforcement alone will never be able to keep abreast of the fast pace of IT developments and changes.’

And talking of computers, it is worth mentioning that the laptop of one of the most important jailed paramilitary leaders, the previously mentioned Salvatore Mancuso, seems to have disappeared, along with the SIM cards of the mobile phones of other jailed leaders, at the moment they were extradited to the United States. Computers belonging to other men, permitted while they were in jail, could well have been intervened, admitted the Minister of the Interior.

Keeping the pot boiling

Nationally, the anti FARC campaign, both military and media, has also been paying political dividends in a big way. The major blows have been the deaths of Reyes and Ivan Ríos, two of the guerrilla’s high command, and the surrender of ‘Karina’, or Nelly Ávila, the leader of the FARC’s 47th front, who handed herself over on 18 May after almost 20 years of fighting and a reputation of being a ‘Rambo’ among revolutionary commanders. She has apparently recorded radio messages calling on her compañeros to lay down their arms.

The death of Manuel Marulanda (Pedro Antonio Marín) the group’s long time leader, has also had some impact on the FARC, but did not provide Uribe with more points. The revolutionaries stated that he died on 26 March from a heart attack at age 80; he had been reported as ill for some time and there are those who believe he died at least a year previously. Even so, the Colombian armed forces claimed that his death might have been due to a bombardment of his camp; they continue with their gruesome search for his grave. Opinion is divided about the new leader, Alfonso Cano, who may or may not be more open to dialogue. The real question is: with whom? Uribe is making overtures, but no one believes him, his consistent position has been to smash the FARC. Ex minister of the interior Carlos Holguín stated that if Cano doesn’t negotiate, ‘We will exterminate him.’

An interesting and perhaps revealing point related to Marulanda’s death is that rather than coming via the president, the information was initially provided by the magazine Semana, property of the family of defence minister Juán Manuel Santos. Santos’s star has been rising lately; Uribe was reportedly unhappy about the way the news was made public. The Betancourt affair has made Santos one of the most popular government figures, and he is reported to be a likely candidate in the next election. There have been other signs of fracture within the governing group too: the recent resignation of Carlos Holguin, who also plans to run for the presidency, and the support of Uribe allies in Congress (against the administration’s wishes) for legislation providing compensation for victims of the war, including those affected by government forces.

Looking for a legacy

Whatever the internal machinations of the Uribe team, the recent successes against the FARC, and in particular the bloodless release of Betancourt, have helped the Colombian leader maintain support and avoid the difficult questions. This is not to say the left is dormant. Opposition mayors hold power in the capital Bogotá and Medellín, cities with a combined population of some 12 million people. What the success of the Polo Democrático in Bogotá reveals is that, whatever their opinion of the president’s successes against the FARC, large numbers of people are unhappy with pro-US, free market, flexible labour policies, all instituted under cover of war. Unhappiness with Uribe does not, on the other hand, translate into support for the guerrillas the FARC probably has an approval rating of close to zero. The majority of Colombians simply want the war to be over, and don’t care how it happens.

The president’s popularity can also be explained by the recent strength of Colombian economy, but to a large degree this reflects an overall improvement in the region’s economic fortunes. In the context of a slowdown in the United States, the country will doubtless be vulnerable due to its dependence on exports to and investment from the northern giant.

Despite the vote buying scandal centred on the first re-election, government supporters have continued to collect the signatures needed for a referendum on a second. Until the Betancourt rescue, the chances seemed limited; even the church informally disapproved. Now the road seems open. As one commentator put it, the options are now either to remain in power or, after this term is over, to withdraw as the man who beat the guerrillas. Given Uribe’s track record, relinquishing power does not seem the more likely outcome.

In a recent interview with the Argentinean journalist Andres Oppenheimer, the Colombian head of state affirmed that he is president for a second time because he was reelected by some seven million four hundred thousand Colombians (from an electorate of 25 million). The implication is that if those same Colombians want him to serve a third term, then so be it. Even so, up to now Uribe has been playing coy, unwilling to publicly commit himself. The Ingrid effect has changed that.

Asked by Oppenheimer if altering the constitution once again to legitimise a third election was going down the same road as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, who was roundly criticised internationally for aspiring to be ‘president for life’, the Colombian head of state responded that his aim was for Colombia to opt for ‘democratic security’, and that he was ‘promoting a form of thought that, God willing, in Colombia will provide many leaders and candidates for the presidency and that we will be able to elect many presidents’.

Advancing his thoughts on the politics of the right, Uribe, who in 2007 received the ‘Light Unto Nations’ award from the American Jewish Committee, has been promoting the creation of a force that will dominate politics in Colombia for 50 years.

North and South

The proposition may be somewhat optimistic. Alvaro Uribe may succeed in winning the right to a third term, but with two years to run, winning is not a sure thing. No matter how it was achieved, the Betancourt rescue was the ace up the sleeve; in the short term it got the Colombian strong man out of a nasty political mess. But the euphoria will not last for ever, and aces will be increasingly difficult to find. The war is not over, the FARC may be down but they are not out. Paramilitary violence is resurgent, forced displacements continue and the cocaine culture shows no sign of being eradicated. The Medina affair is bound to resurface, divisions and resentment with the governing camp will probably deepen, and other candidates are bound to show their hands. Capitalising on her present popularity, Ingrid Betancourt has herself been acting as a prospective candidate, already distancing herself from her rescuer.

Throughout his time as president Alvaro Uribe has made a habit of looking north, towards George Bush and the United States. It might be time to look south. In Lima, Perú, another fighter against guerrillas, ex Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, who also tended to look north and who in his time enjoyed massive support, is presently on trial for human rights abuses. Fujimori broke the back of the MRTA and Sendero Luminoso and jailed its leader Abimael Guzmán; he was as popular as his Colombian counterpart and believed in his own invincibility. He changed the constitution, dismissed Congress, and votes were bought through his head of security Vladimir Montesinos, although Fujimori claimed he was unaware of the events. But in a bid for a third term he overstepped the line, fixed the election and was eventually forced out of power and into exile. Now back home, he is in jail not far from Guzmán and Montesinos.

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