Colombian President Alvaro Uribe avoids debate over his policies by disqualifying any opposition or criticism as support for the FARC or anti-patriotic to avoid taking responsibility for his own failures, says Leon Valencia, director of think tank Nuevo Arco Iris.
Following a recently released report by the corporation that stated the government’s ‘Democratic Security’ policy had reached its limit, the FARC was on the rebound and paramilitary violence was on the increase, Uribe reacted immediately, blaming Nuevo Arco Iris of “always trying to disorientate the country.”
The cold reception of the report hardly came as a shock for Nuevo Arco Iris director León Valencia. “This government deliberately disqualifies any opposition to its policies by accusing opponents of being anti-patriotic or backing the guerrilla.” Valencia told Colombia Reports. “It makes me sad, because the report doesn’t have any other aim than to promote debate.”
U.S. ambassador William Brownfield morally supported you by stating that NGO’s like Nuevo Arco Iris are necessary in any democracy. Were you surprised by his words?
“His reaction was more comprehensive. While he clearly continues backing Uribe’s policy, Brownfield does consider that it’s legitimate to criticize, that changes can be made and that there might be flaws, like the recent wave of urban violence and the connection we found there with paramilitarism shows. Judging from the government response, it’s obvious that Uribe and Silva have not even considered to talk about the contents of our report.”
So why are they evading the debate?
“We’re clearly on a collision course with Uribe, because he wants to sell the idea that paramilitarism is a thing of the past. This government wants to hide its responsability; they left the paramilitary structures in place by making bad deals with the demobilized. They made a mistake and refuse to recognize it.”
“The government rather uses the term ‘new emergent criminal bands’ when dealing with drug trafficking and rising levels of violence in the cities. But that’s a euphemism; several of these groups not only control drug trade, they also threaten labor leaders, attack political groups, look for political connections and control territories. They may differ from the paramilitary groups that reigned before, but they are deploying very similar activities.”
What would be your alternative for Uribe’s politics of democratic security?
“Before, Colombian governments were inclined to negotiate with the guerrilla groups. This resulted in some partial peace treaties, but in the end all failed. Uribe took on a different approach. Instead of negotiating with the guerrillas, he resumed waging war on them and started demobilizing talks with the paramilitaries. But as we can conclude now he has also failed; the paramilitary structures are still there and as we show in our report the guerrilla groups are far from defeated and I don’t think they ever will be with military means.”
“We need to think more in terms of reconciliation and design a peace process with the previous failures in mind. Obviously, Uribe is not going to do it, because he won the elections with the promise to defeat the FARC.”
How can we be optimistic about peace negotiations with the guerrilla if we consider the failures of the past?
“Firstly, the guerrilla has received so many blows over the last years that they have lost the belief in winning the war. Secondly, they must have seen elsewhere in Latin America that the left can also take power in a democratic way through elections, including ex-guerrillas like recently in Uruguay and Salvador. Besides, it won’t be easy to further increase military spending. Colombia has almost doubled its defense budget over the last years and with 425,000 soldiers our army equals Brazil’s in size. We’ve reached a limit here.”
Would it be possible to win the presidential elections with a peace agenda?
“The oppositional candidates have a lot of fear discussing the security issue and to push forward alternatives. Take the publication of our report last week. As a small NGO we tried to stir up the debate about Uribe’s democratic security, but the opposition in congress hasn’t said a word about it. It’s a disgrace!”
Because criticizing the president on this matter equals political suicide?
“I would rather say there’s a lack of brave politicians, capable of working on a coherent alternative discourse to Uribe. It might be a long-term struggle to find support for it, but you have to start somewhere. The opposition against the ‘war on terrorism’-doctrine of former US president George W. Bush also didn’t materialize immediately.”
Some think peace can also be obtained under a third presidency of Uribe.
“I don’t believe so. A third term would be downright fatal for Colombia. It would not only further diminish the chances for peace, it would also inflict more damage on the democratic institutions and place us on the same level with Chavez. Colombia has already received severe blows to its democratic culture under Uribe. He has turned back the clock on issues like abortion, gay rights and the depenalization of personal use of small amounts of drugs. Finally we’ve made a step backwards in the fight against corruption and the fight against terrorism has badly impacted the human rights situation.”