is a man who saved a country. Before he came to power in 2002, Colombia
was on the brink of collapse, with an economy still trying to recover
from the terrible crisis of 1999, and with criminals mandating over
large parts of the country.
After four years of failed negotiations with terrorist groups, kidnappings en masse, terrible military defeats, massacres, and a skyrocketing drug production, Mr. Uribe won the presidency promising Colombians both a firm hand and a big heart.
But the task ahead of him was very complicated. Indeed, on the very
moment when he was being sworn as President, with thousands of
distinguished guests looking, the FARC managed to shoot some small
rockets at the façade of the presidential palace. I still remember a
picture of a concerned Prince Felipe de Borbon of Spain staring at the ceiling after the first blast occurred. Back then, one could be forgiven for believing that Mr. Uribe would be unable to stop Colombia from sliding into anarchy.
But Alvaro Uribe delivered. He strengthened Colombia’s military, and gave FARC their worst defeats ever. In the words of the late Manuel Marulanda, the FARC’s founder, with Mr. Uribe in power, that organization lost the gains it obtained in the past twenty years. In addition, around 30,000 members of paramilitary groups were demobilized. Due to a booming world economy, a safer environment inside Colombia, and the use of tax incentives, Colombian GDP saw its fastest growth in several decades. Under President Uribe, Colombia’s income per head (at Purchase Power Parity) has grown around 55% since 2002, from US$5,400 to US$8,300 in 2008. Mr. Uribe’s
policy of Democratic Security also served to dramatically reduce the
number of kidnappings per year, which went down from 2882 to 437. The
murder rate decreased, too, from almost 70 per 100,000 inhabitants in
2002 to 33 homicides per 100,000 people in 2008. The
production of coca and cocaine followed suit as the Colombian state
using resources of Plan Colombia, took control of long abandoned areas.
As The Economist put it a while ago, “only those blinded by ideology would deny that Alvaro Uribe made of Colombia a better place.” By winning reelection in 2006, Mr. Uribe received four more years to consolidate his legacy.
The unprecedented 7 million votes he received were proof that
Colombians trusted him and were thankful for the changes he had brought
until then. No one could have imagined former Presidents Barco, Gaviria, Samper or Pastrana being reelected after the end of their first terms, even if they had wanted to. The fact that the Colombian people wanted Mr. Uribe
to stay in power is telling of how efficient his administration was, of
how much of a difference he had made for ordinary citizens. To have him
in power until 2010 was a wise idea.
But until 2014, not so much. The few doubts there remained about whether Mr. Uribe wanted to be elected for a third term were effaced last week. Days
after members of the government’s coalition in Congress met with the
President, the Senate passed the controversial proposal for a
referendum that would change the constitution and stand as a candidate
in next year’s election. The House of Representatives will vote on the
issue this week, perhaps favorably, although the government will have a
tougher time than in the upper house. Last
week, as well, the President said in a speech that his policies “had
the right” to continue, once again signaling (although still in veiled
form) that he wants to preside over Colombia for another term.
must be stopped. His ambitions to remain in power are dangerous for
Colombia’s institutions and represent a mockery to the Constitution. Of course, many of those who admire Mr. Uribe
wonder why one should deny a third term to the best President Colombia
has had in many decades. If two terms were this good, why not have
another one? In the first place, because it is a matter of principle.
All liberal democracies are based on the idea of limiting power, an aim
for which alternation in government becomes necessary. Having an
undefeatable Mr. Uribe
in the ballot for the third time would render elections meaningless,
slowly transforming Colombian politics into a one man show, more than
ever equating government and the state with one person alone. Moreover, if Colombia lets the head of the executive serve in office for twelve consecutive years, many of the checks and balances with the judiciary and the legislative will disappear.
This is even more worrying, considering that Colombia already has a strong presidency, as it is. Presidential
and congressional elections come very close in Colombia’s electoral
calendar, which creates a trail effect that guarantees that the
President will have a majority in Congress. In addition, the President helps select the candidates for many offices of the judiciary, such as the Attorney General and the Constitutional Court,
as well as those of many more institutions. Hundreds of public
officials serve at the pleasure of the President of Colombia. It is
easy to see that one person with that kind of power for twelve years
can turn the state into a machine that is inclined to advance particular, not general, interests. Sadly, I think it is clear, this has already started to occur in the Uribe administration.
And that is why I, like many more uribistas, are disappointed in President Uribe.
We thought him a statesman. We thought he understood what democracy and
republicanism were all about. We wanted him to gallantly refuse to
remain in power because greater, more important values and principles were at stake. We thought he realized that there are qualified, strong, lucid presidential hopefuls who are determined to continue with his policies. Apparently not. The President has been seduced by power and all its delights,
and he will not let go easily. Perhaps he is afraid of slowly becoming
irrelevant in politics, of being surpassed by others, of falling into
the diminished state that all former presidents assume after leaving
office. Perhaps he has come to believe, in what is the first sign of
dictatorial delusion, that nobody but him can run the country.
What goes through Mr. Uribe’s mind, I really do not know. But what has become clear
is that the man who saved Colombia is also on his way to become the man
who will damage the Republic onto which she is founded. In his first
inaugural address, Mr. Uribe
said he prayed that God would “illuminate” him in order “to overcome
human vanity and to rectify when [he] erred”. In this hour, Mr. Uribe needs a great deal of God’s heavenly light.