Last Friday, Colombia was paralyzed. Everyone was listening to the radio, or watching the news on TV, waiting for the Constitutional Court’s decision on the referendum. Here at Princeton, I spent the entire day sitting in front of my laptop, listening to online radio stations and following the hundreds of tweets on the issue.
Staff from La Silla Vacia, an online news magazine, were twittering from inside the Palace of Justice, describing what the atmosphere there was like, and giving updates on the situation. There were rumors that the court had decided to postpone the final vote for Monday, some said that the vote was split 4-4, and that one judge was undecided, while others insisted that the court was firmly against the referendum (7-2, 8-1). Hundreds of miles away from Colombia, I didn’t know what to believe, so I chose a wait-and-see approach.
I had been waiting since 11 AM, and six hours later the decision still had not come out. I was nervous, but I also wanted to take a break from all that, and I thought about doing something else. My roommate and I decided to watch an episode of “Damages”, a legal drama with Glenn Close, and for a while my brain stopped thinking about the referendum. However (unlucky me!), when I opened my Twitter after that, I read that some news outlets had already leaked the decision: the Constitutional Court had voted 7-2 against the referendum, and President Uribe would be unable to run for a third term. Period.
And so the exhausting wait was over. Years of uncertainty about a third term for President Uribe had come to an end. Mauricio Gonzalez Cuervo, the president of the Constitutional Court, finally appeared in front of the dozens of journalists that had gathered in the Palace of Justice, and read the decision. When judge Gonzalez said the word “inexequible” (i.e., that may not be done or executed, unconstitutional) in reference to the referendum, the people in the auditorium clapped and shouted with joy. Many more had gathered outside the Palace of Justice, and they started dancing and singing once the decision became official. The nation was relieved. The constitution and the republic had been saved.
On Friday, President Uribe had followed his schedule as if it were any other day. In the afternoon, the president was having a meeting about healthcare in a hotel in Barranquilla. When the court’s decision was made public, Mr. Uribe’s press secretary approached the President and whispered in his ear. The president’s expression barely changed and he carried on with the meeting. Later, at 7 PM, Mr. Uribe addressed the country from that same auditorium, and with just a few notes before him, he gave a heartfelt speech saying that he would comply with the court’s decision. “The rule of law (or Rechtsstaat, Estado de Derecho) demands that all citizens submit themselves to the law, but especially the ruler (gobernante)” the president said. “I am inspired, dear countrymen, by one feeling: the only feeling I harbor is a feeling of love for Colombia, that feeling I was born with… I wish that in the years I have left to live I may feel more love for Colombia every day.”
At that moment, I felt very proud of my country. The Constitutional Court had given a remarkable proof of institutional independence and President Uribe had shown once again that he is a true democrat, a statesman in every sense of the word. In 2007, when Venezuelans voted against a referendum that would have erased all limits on presidential reelections, President Hugo Chavez simply chose to ask them again. Mr. Chavez finally got his way in February 2009, so he may be able to continue with his destruction of Venezuela’s economy for decades to come. Last year in Honduras, President Manuel Zelaya wanted to have a “consultative poll” to ask the people whether they wanted a new constitution that would allow for presidential reelection. After the Supreme Court declared this poll illegal, President Zelaya said he would carry on with it in any case. Days later, Mr. Zelaya was overthrown by the Armed Forces, and well, we all know the rest of the story. Now he is somewhere in Santo Domingo enjoying his life as an unemployed politician.
None of that happened in Colombia. There was a popular petition for a referendum, Congress made some changes and later approved it, the President signed it, and the Constitutional Court finally said it couldn’t be done. That, dear reader, are checks and balances in action. My mother was so surprised when I told her the news that she simply asked: “So, is this it? Is the decision final?” I understood how she could be confused about the importance of the Court’s decision. The country’s political establishment had spent so much energy on this referendum business that it was hard to believe that nine judges had the power to block it. But so says our constitution, and the respect for those fundamental rules is what makes the Colombian polity work.
But now that is over, and Colombia needs to look to the future. With the referendum out of the way, the presidential campaign will finally begin in earnest. Although Juan Manuel Santos is leading in the polls, his lead is so small that it would be foolish to call the election in his favor. The Conservative Party’s primary election will take place in less than two weeks, and its result will have profound implications for the general election, due May 30. Will the President’s coalition act as a unified force without Mr. Uribe? With the Uribista votes split among Juan Manuel Santos, Andres Felipe Arias, Noemi Sanin and German Vargas Lleras, there is a chance that a non-Uribista (Petro, Pardo) can make it to the run-off election. There is also the Sergio Fajardo enigma, as the former mayor of Medellin has a good chance of performing well in the election.
Will President Uribe anoint a successor? If he does, will it be Mr. Arias or Mr. Santos? Will the voters follow the president’s endorsement? These and many other questions still remain. Only now will many Colombians start considering the proposals of the presidential candidates, and I cannot wait for the debates to start. Colombia is fortunate to have so many smart and dedicated candidates to choose from, and for sure this will be a very interesting election. I encourage my fellow countrymen to vote for someone who has Mr. Uribe’s backbone and vision (you know who I will be voting for), so that Colombia can continue to benefit from the good policies of his administration.
On Friday, the Constitutional Court defended the republic and put an end to President Uribe’s attempt to remain in office for four more years. I applaud their decision. What cannot be forgotten, however, is that Colombia “cannot change direction [and] cannot have a change of guard”, in Mr. Uribe’s words. The country certainly does not want to return to the mess of the pre-Uribe years. And so Colombia will have to elect someone who protects and improves the legacy of Alvaro Uribe once he leaves the presidency.