Former President Álvaro Uribe is on a Twitter tirade claiming his successor Juan Manuel Santos has not lived up to 2010 campaign pledges. Not only is this false, but the former President is conveniently forgetting many promises he broke himself.
In fact, his failures to observe and fulfill his own proposed objectives are too numerous and remarkable to forget. They are so numerous that they wouldn’t fit in one op-ed.
This is Part Two of a series that compares (a) the promises Uribe made before the 2002 elections and the discourse held during his presidency and (b) what transpired.
Broken Promise #2: Strengthening public institutions
In a September 2004 interview with weekly Cambio, Gustavo Petro expressed his fear of a democratically elected president like Uribe destroying the pillars of democracy. In August of 2003, Jaime Araúo Rentería, former magistrate of Colombia’s Constitutional Court, according to newspaper El Tiempo, feared that with Uribe Colombia would turn into an authoritarian state. In 2002, activists, such as members of Organización Femenina Popular, also expressed similar fears after Uribe’s first election because they expected to see the realization of a totalitarian model blessed by the U.S. In 2002, Jorge Rojas, Director of Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) said it appeared Uribe’s initiatives would lead to a presidential dictatorship. Such preoccupations and concerns were not unfounded.
State of Internal Commotion
Fernando Londoño, Uribe’s Justice and Interior Minister from 2002 to 2004, claimed Colombians should be prepared to sacrifice all rights for the sake of security because, as he saw it, “There are no absolute rights.” Uribe’s declaration of a “State of Internal Commotion,” for example, just five days after inauguration, went against certain Constitutional rights. In 2002, The Washington Post summarized Uribe’s declaration in the following manner: “[The] decree, which will last from three to nine months, allows the government to impose extended curfews and prevent access to areas without prior court approval; restrict information reported by the news media; commandeer land, equipment and professional expertise from private citizens; and suspend elected officials contributing to public unrest.” Two weeks after the declaration, Londoño, while speaking to congress, suggested that some of the powers the declaration guaranteed should be made permanent. In June of 2010, Uribe, again, was set to declare another “State of Internal Commotion.” Both times the state of emergency was defended by the government as necessary to fight terrorism.
Executive Branch increases influence
An October 2009 study by the Center of Law, Justice, and Society concluded the Executive Branch increased its influence during Uribe’s tenure. By the time of the report’s publication, it was said that when Uribe was first elected, the Presidency had influence in appointing the Ombudsman and the Prosecutor General. However, after eight years, that figure rose to influence over eight state institutions. Further, during the last couple of weeks of his second term, Uribe proposed a bill to the House of Representatives that would transfer the ability to select the Colombian Prosecutor from the Supreme Court to the Executive Branch.
Presidential term extension
Uribe’s search for dominance was also present in his desire to remain in the nation’s highest office for as long as possible. Though during his second term Uribe remained vague as to whether he supported the referendum—he did end up backing it publicly toward the end—, during his first term he was more vocal about it: “I shall be frank. I’m a politician and I would like it if the mayors would campaign for the referendum, why should I disregard the reality, that’s how it is.” Two years after Uribe’s second election, a political bribery scandal—yidispolítica—erupted that would put the legitimacy of Uribe’s second term into question. Yidis Medina, former congresswoman, testified to the Supreme Court and was found guilty of selling her vote in favor of Uribe’s re-election bill. Investigations were also assumed against Tomás Uribe, the former president’s son, for a notary scandal and bribery to ensure his father’s 2006 re-election. Though Uribe and supporters successfully changed the constitution to run for a second term, they were unsuccessful the second time. The Constitutional Court found irregularities in the manner the signatures for the referendum were collected, concluding Uribe’s second re-election bid “unconstitutional in its entirety” and contained “substantial violations to the democratic principle.”
Underfunding of conflict resolution and reconciliation institutions
Further, Uribe’s government under-funded public institutions essential for conflict resolution and reconciliation. For example, in April of 2010, the Colombian Prosecutor General’s Office confirmed 300,000 official registered complaints against the paramilitaries, including 157,000 extrajudicial executions—to which 32,000 assassinations the paramilitaries had already confessed, at the time. However, on 24 August 2010, the same office expressed it did not have a budget and “sufficient resources” to investigate the large number of complaints, of which only 7 percent had been investigated.
Attack on independence of judiciary
Uribe also had a history of lashing out against the judiciary for investigating him, his family, his military, and his political party, and he claimed such investigations destroyed justice and replaced it with hatred. Yet, at the same time, Uribe pushed for judges to fully investigate his opposition and even submitted bills that limited civil liberties if his military wanted to investigate leads. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) called Uribe’s actions “another attack on the independence of the judiciary.”
FIDH also had concerns regarding the safety and security of Colombian judges, and with Uribe the FIDH feared he was “attempting to hinder the process of the ‘cleaning up’ of Colombian institutions which should contribute to strengthening the legitimacy of the State and to the full implementation of the Rule of Law.” On June 10 of 2010, Jaime Arrubla, acting Supreme Court President, speaking for the court, called “upon the international community to give their support and solidarity to the [Colombian] judicial system, which once again is being attacked for exercising its functions, and urges the national government to implement the recommendations that have been imposed by the international rapporteurs.” According to Amnesty International, “Several Supreme Court judges investigating the scandal [parapolítica], and their families, were reportedly threatened.”
The Judicial Branch and the Executive had eight years of tension. The unrelenting “train crash” between Uribe and the courts was wide in scope, and covered the scandals of yidispolítica, parapolítica, DAS wiretaps, extradition of paramilitaries, the Justice and Peace Law (which granted near impunity to demobilized paramilitaries), electing Colombia’s Attorney General, the implications of Uribe’s son and cousin, Mario Uribe, in a notary and election scandal, and so forth. In February of 2008, FIDH called for the Colombian government to “respect the independence of the judiciary and to guarantee the safety and integrity of the judges, who have been publicly stigmatized by the President himself.” With such pressures directed at the Judiciary, it is difficult to assess if it was able to effectively fulfill its purpose during the times of Uribe, a concern expressed by FIDH and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR).
Prioritizing security forces over state’s human rights obligations
Uribe prioritized trying to pass anti-terrorist legislation that would legalize torture and violate human rights and the 1991 Constitution. His first administration tried to give judicial powers to the country’s security forces—the very armed group with some of the worst crimes against humanity and human rights records in the country and hemisphere, especially during Uribe’s two terms in office. Uribe was also successful in suspending consequences for armed groups, like its allied paramilitaries, that demobilize regardless if they themselves had been direct perpetrators of torture and extrajudicial assassinations.
Through the Antiterrorist Amendment (2003) and the Antiterrorist Law (2004), Uribe’s administration tried to give the country’s armed forces the ability to arrest people for 36 hours, search homes, and spy on private communications without judicial oversight or warrant. As the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned in 2003, the Uribe administration policy for democracy and security would be “sending a message that the security forces would be more successful if less constrained by the state’s human rights obligations.” This message, concluded ICG, “is dangerous and, as history has often shown, counterproductive.”
The statute, looking to increase the power of the military, was struck down in August of 2004 by the Colombian Constitutional Court. These Bills would have severely limited the fundamental civil liberties and rights established by the 1991 Constitution all under the name of security and the war on terror, which, in turn, could fuel a greater increase in extrajudicial assassinations, torture, forced disappearances, force displacements, and forced detainments than the country has already experienced under Uribe’s armed forces. Christian Salazar, a representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, worried about such a proposal: “One can say that human rights can never weaken the Armed Forces. On the contrary, the respect of human rights strengthens the legitimacy of the Armed Forces of any democratic state, also in Colombia.”
The only institutions that significantly got stronger during Uribe’s watch were the Executive Branch and the Colombian Armed Forces. I don’t even want to imagine what a third Uribe term would have entailed.
Julián Esteban Torres López is an editor, writer, researcher, and educator with nearly two decades’ experience working with publications, historical societies, and cultural and research institutions, and has held leadership positions in the academe, the arts, journals, the business sector, and history museums. You can follow him on Twitter.