On Friday, the members of Colombia’s Constitutional Court will vote on the legality of a proposed re-election referendum that would allow President Alvaro Uribe to run for a third term in office. The closer we get to the decision, the more it seems that the court will vote against the referendum. News website La Silla Vacia interviewed anonymous insiders and predicted that the final vote would be 7 to 2 against the referendum.
Meanwhile the president, who has historically shied away from public references to the referendum, has in recent days made it increasingly clear that he wants it to pass. In public appearances, Uribe has said his re-election would not harm Colombia’s democratic institutions, and that it would be a good thing for the people to decide whether he can run again or not. Why this change in Uribe’s public attitude toward the referendum? Clearly the president is desperate. Not only are the reports from inside the court unfavorable, but public opinion is beginning to turn against him. Historically, popular support has been the president’s trusty shield against scandals, criticisms and institutional limits on presidential power in Colombia. Without it, Uribe is weakened.
As we approach the likely end of the Uribe era (though his supporters are likely to cling onto power for years), it is important to look back on the last eight years. In previous columns, I have given my take on the president’s performance on issues ranging from the economy to security policy. This week, I will approach the Uribe years from a different angle.
Beyond looking at the president’s achievements and shortcomings, an equally important point to reflect on is why public opinion has turned against Uribe so suddenly. In a previous column, I pointed to Colombia’s struggling economy, gradually dwindling support in Washington and growing security problems as the main reasons for Uribe’s reversal of fortune. But, looking at the evolution of Uribe’s popularity from a historical perspective, it is clear that a far more important thing has happened, a quiet revolution in the national spirit.
To see what I mean, it is useful to think about the political climate in Colombia five or six years ago. Back then, if you criticized the president, you risked being accused of supporting the FARC guerrillas or Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. The country as a whole was aggressively averse to criticism of its president. Even four or five months ago, when I began writing for Colombia Reports, I was frequently the target of such accusations in the comments section.
Times have certainly changed. Even in Uribe’s hometown of Medellin, it is by no means unusual to hear someone arguing that it is time for the president to step down. To my personal relief, in the comments section of my columns, fewer and fewer readers accuse me of being a Chavista or a FARC sympathizer. This is more than a slight national change of mind. It is a quiet revolution.
I lived through an analogous situation in the United States. I was a student in Washington, D.C. during the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001. Several of my relatives lived in the New York area at that time, and one of them was in lower Manhattan when the planes struck. The sense of chaos and vulnerability I felt that day is unforgettable. Phone lines were down and students could not reach their parents. At the time, nobody even knew who had perpetrated the attacks, why they had done so or when the attacks would end.
In the months that followed, President George W. Bush’s approval ratings were extraordinarily high. Bush managed to communicate to the American people a sense of order and protection that voters desperately needed. Bush went on to push through a set of extraordinary policies – two wars (one of them with almost no support from the international system), harsh interrogation of terror suspects, extreme domestic surveillance measures, and so on. Critics of these policies were quickly met with accusations of anti-Americanism. It was only in the final years of his eight-year presidency that the 9/11 effect wore off. Coupled with the tremendous political impact of the economic crisis, this led to the collapse of the established Republican order and the election of Democrat Barack Obama.
Recent Colombian history is different for many important reasons. The threat was not immediate, but constant and growing. For years, the power and influence of guerrilla forces had multiplied and previous presidents were unable to stem the national decline into near anarchy. Crime and armed conflict made Colombia one of the world’s most dangerous countries.
However, there are important similarities in the evolution of the political climate under Presidents Bush and Uribe, who also happen to be close friends and political allies. When Uribe was elected, he quickly became a reassuring national father figure. Not unlike Bush, he offered his countrymen a desperately needed sense of order, protection and hope. Popular support for Uribe during his first years in office was immense in both scale and fervor.
The president’s methods and behavior were extreme. He undermined democratic institutions, silenced and discredited healthy dissent through accusations of guerrilla sympathies, encouraged a spirit of military aggression that contributed to the “false positives” phenomenon, and was strangely tolerant of widespread corruption and paramilitary links among his supporters in government. But it didn’t matter. Colombians tolerated his excesses, and many of them actually believed every word Uribe said. Human rights defenders were FARC sympathizers, domestic dissenters were anti-patriotic, and paramilitary links to government members were myths, created to undermine his presidency.
Clearly, this is not the national spirit in today’s Colombia. Colombians no longer defend Uribe’s reputation as if they were defending Colombia itself. Why? The main reason is that fear of guerrilla violence has declined, thanks in part to Uribe’s success in pushing guerrillas out of densely populated areas. In other words, the president has fallen victim to his own success. Without this sense of fear, Uribe’s flaws are more visible, echoing what happened to President Bush’s popularity when terrorism became a lower priority for American voters.
This is a hugely positive development for the country. At the peak of Uribe’s popularity, Colombia resembled a dictatorship, not primarily because the president was undermining democratic institutions (though he was) but rather because the people themselves thought Uribe was infallible and allowed him to personally dominate the entirety of Colombian politics. Today, the national political environment is somewhat healthier. For the first time in years, there is real debate, real discussion and real reflection. Although there is still plenty of polarization and ideological excess, Colombia is moving toward the resumption of politics as usual.
This is not to say that all of Uribe’s policies have been terrible. I personally am not a supporter of the president, but, in my view, the main problem during his two terms in office was not his choice of policies, but the absence of national dialogue and debate. The lesson to draw from all of this is that fear can blind an entire country. During this recent period of national blindness, President Uribe may have enacted some good policies and some bad ones, but there was no public scrutiny of them. Those who did place the president under healthy scrutiny were marginalized, almost irreversibly.
Colombians still have plenty to fear. The economy is struggling, guerrillas remain a threat and other illegal armed groups are wreaking havoc throughout the country. As the country moves forward to confront these challenges, let us hope that it does so with a spirit of healthy democratic debate. Colombia’s democracy is still quite fragile and the main threat to its consolidation is the blinding effect of collective fear.