When I met German Vargas Lleras I could not help feeling a quick shiver in my back. It was a warm May afternoon in Bogotá, and Mr. Vargas and I had talked earlier on the phone. I had gone back to Colombia for the summer after my junior year at Princeton, and I wanted to work for Mr. Vargas’ presidential campaign. Very kindly, he accepted to meet with me, and there I was, standing at the entrance of his office, shaking his hand.
What first struck me about German Vargas Lleras was his piercing, powerful look. He has the eyes of farsighted politicians, of those who are made out of conviction and raw strength, of those who are willing to risk their own lives to fight for what is right. I was standing before the bravest Senator that Colombia had had in a long time, and one of the most heavily protected politicians in the country. Hence, the shiver.
The several attacks that have been committed against Mr. Vargas are well known. On December 2002 FARC sent to his office a bomb hidden in a gift wrapped book. The bomb exploded as Mr. Vargas opened the fake present, mutilating his left hand (he lost two fingers) and wounding him in the face. Reportedly, Mr. Vargas walked himself out of his office, yelling at his staff to evacuate the building as he tried to contain the hemorrhage. Three years later, in October 2005, Mr. Vargas escaped death again as he left the building of Caracol, a radio network. When his convoy of armor-plated vehicles was exiting the place, a car bomb exploded right next to it. It is not clear yet who ordered the attack. Although Mr. Vargas was not hurt, one of his 18 bodyguards was gravely injured. And it has not fully ended. Just last week, Mr. Vargas appeared on a list of politicians and public officials who have recently received threats and who may need greater protection from the Ministry of Defense.
The clear danger he faces has never stopped Mr. Vargas from continuing his work in Colombian politics. Even before he had fully recovered from the injuries produced by the book bomb, he returned to the Capitol to keep working. The speech he gave the day he returned to work is among his best. In 2006, five months after the car bomb attack, he received the highest number of votes for a Senator in that legislative election, and he became the Speaker of the Colombian Congress. Now, he wants to win the country’s presidency next year.
And boy, would he make a great president. As a political insider he has both the political platform and the knowledge of Colombian public life necessary to lead the nation. Being grandson to Carlos Lleras Restrepo, whose presidency between 1966 and 1970 is still remembered for its efficiency and good results, Mr. Vargas has spent his entire life in close contact with Colombia’s political world. After getting his law degree, and while still in his twenties, he became a member of the city council of Bojacá in Cundinamarca. Later, he joined Nuevo Liberalismo, the movement founded by Luis Carlos Galán, who was one of his mentors. Before Mr. Galan’s assassination in 1989, Mr. Vargas worked at the Ministry of Agriculture, and in the early 1990s he became a member of Bogotá’s city council. Later, Mr. Vargas was elected to Congress in 1994, where he served without interruption for fourteen years, becoming one of Colombia’s most prominent politicians.
As lawmaker, Mr. Vargas has authored dozens of laws, some of which form the central pillar of Colombia’s arsenal against drugs and terrorism. For instance, he wrote the law that allows the Colombian state to expropriate the property of narcotraficantes, which was a heavy blow to drug lords in a time when they built luxurious mansions by the dozen and had private zoos with giraffes brought directly from Africa in massive airplanes. Even before Alvaro Uribe became President, Mr. Vargas had already heralded another bill that strengthened Colombia’s Armed Forces, expanding the resources available to them right when FARC was taking over the country. No wonder they tried to kill him. In recent years, Mr. Vargas was one of the first people to ring the alarm about Venezuela’s increased military power, and he pushed heavily for the purchase of a number of Brazilian Supertucano jets in order to keep Colombia’s skies safe and her territory protected. He has also talked strongly against Venezuelan interference in Colombia’s domestic affairs.
So, those fellow countrymen of mine who still believe that Alvaro Uribe is the only man who has the vision and the strength to lead Colombia should think again. In a country of so many corrupt and coward politicians, Germán Vargas Lleras has the backbone and the determination that makes great leaders –and this, he has proven more than once. There can be no doubt that Mr. Vargas would be a worthy successor of President Uribe, for he would assure the continuity of the policies that have made Colombia a better place to live in the last seven years. Indeed, while in Congress, he was an ardent supporter of Mr. Uribe’s work as President, although relations between the two of them are now cold, in great part due to Mr. Vargas’ active and rightful opposition to a second consecutive presidential reelection.
Now, many would ask, if Germán Vargas will continue with Mr. Uribe’s policies why should Colombians vote for him instead of the man who saved the country in the first place? Well, for one, because reelecting Mr. Uribe once again poses a danger to the Constitution and to Colombia’s republican order, as I and many others have said before. And second, because Mr. Vargas’ social policies are much more comprehensive than those of the Uribe administration. For instance, in a country where three million families have no housing, Germán Vargas Lleras has devised a feasible plan to encourage the construction of 200,000 houses per year between 2010 and 2014. Under Mr. Vargas’ scheme, government subsidies in housing for the poor would exceed four times those of Mr. Uribe’s government. The implementation of this plan would create around 800,000 jobs annually. Mr. Vargas also has an ambitious infrastructure program which would do much to improve the dismal state of Colombia’s road network. And even in national security, Mr. Vargas’ approach is somewhat different to that of President Uribe, for he has vowed to strengthen the national police force (terribly underfunded and understaffed) so that urban crime can be better controlled, without diminishing the military pressure against FARC and other insurgencies.
The reelection of President Uribe is inconvenient and dangerous, but Colombia needs a man with similar vision and strength of character. Germán Vargas Lleras is that man. Working for his campaign this summer was a fulfilling and educational experience, which convinced me even more that he ought to be the next inhabitant of La Casa de Nariño. I am grateful for that opportunity. He is surrounded by a great group of experts, which, under his leadership, have put together the most complete and coherent campaign proposals there are in Colombia to date. And if it happens that Mr. Vargas is not excelling in the opinion polls right now, you should just give him time –there is something about Germán Vargas Lleras that makes him end up winning every game he plays.