A few months ago, I rode Medellin’s San Javier Metro-cable line to the hills above Comuna 13, one of the city’s poorest and most violent sectors. It was my first visit to Medellin in quite some time and I wanted to know more about the current political climate there, so I struck up a conversation with my fellow passengers. One was a truck driver from southern Colombia who was sightseeing in Medellin while his truck underwent some repairs. The other was an Afro-Colombian man in his 30s, a native of the Choco region who moved to Comuna 13 fifteen years ago to escape guerrilla and paramilitary violence. The two men could not have come from more different backgrounds, but they enthusiastically agreed on two points: that President Alvaro Uribe should be re-elected for a second time, and that any argument against the re-election on grounds that it was undemocratic was “petty politics.”
Indeed, for seven years, Uribe has survived countless political controversies and difficulties thanks to his undying support among Colombian voters. It is remarkable, therefore, that the tide began to turn against President Uribe last week. According to recent polls, fewer than 50% of Colombians support his second re-election.
Why are we seeing this revolutionary shift in public opinion? Judging from my conversation on the Metro-cable, it probably has little to do with the argument that Uribe’s second re-election would be detrimental to Colombian democracy. Colombians have heard that argument for months, but they don’t seem to buy it. Most of them believe that democracy is about the people’s will, not about constitutional norms or term limits. Instead, Uribe’s waning popularity probably has more to do with his recent performance on the issues that Colombians care most about, security and the economy.
Colombian voters elected and re-elected President Uribe because they believed that his hard-line security policies were restoring order to the country. When Uribe came to power in 2002, the country was exhausted by the failure of his predecessors to put an end to the country’s vicious cycle of drugs, insurgency, and violence. During his first years in office, Uribe gave Colombia a sense of hope and relief that it had been yearning for for decades, reducing homicides by over 40%. Recently, however, perceptions of violence have been on the rise, especially in Colombia’s major cities.
Urban crime has been a growing concern for months but, until recently, public opinion polls did not reflect any political fallout from this crime wave. Uribe’s approval ratings remained high, suggesting that the public still had faith in the president and perhaps was waiting for his latest security measures to take effect. In the first months of 2010, however, that patience has worn thin and the president’s inability to stem the steady increase in crime rates has finally caught up with him at the polls.
The same can be said of the economy. During Uribe’s first six years in office, the Colombian economy experienced steady growth. By contrast, the past two years have been gloomy ones for Colombian workers, as the global economic downturn has hit the local jobs market particularly hard. According to the latest data, Colombia’s unemployment rate now stands at over 12%, the highest in Latin America. On this issue, as on the issue of security, Colombians are losing their patience and demanding fresh ideas.
Meanwhile, Uribe has stumbled into a series of political controversies. Earlier this year, when Uribe suggested that the government pay Medellin students to become informants against local organized crime, his proposal immediately drew criticism from students, teachers, academics and local officials. During a recent panel discussion at Jorge Tadeo Lozano University in Bogota, the president struggled to defend himself while the panelists, who included notable academics and journalists, bombarded him with harsh accusations that his government was undemocratic and lacked moral authority.
But neither Uribe’s rhetorical thrashing at Jorge Tadeo Lozano nor his proposed informant scheme matched the political mess the president created with his plans for health service reform. In an effort to reduce crippling deficits in the health system, Uribe proposed a number of reforms, the most controversial of which included a fine on doctors who prescribed treatments not included on an official government list, and a measure which would force patients to pay for treatments outside the government program with their own money.
The country has rarely been so unified and vocal in opposition to Uribe as it was during the peak of the health care controversy, which is strange considering that many of the president’s ideas were actually quite sensible. Students, doctors, health care workers, politicians, and traditional Uribe supporters in the media all made public statements condemning the plan, forcing the present to back off from some of his most controversial proposals.
To make matters worse, Uribe is also taking heat from abroad. Last week, Human Rights Watch, an international NGO, released a report suggesting that the government was not doing enough to stop the growth of neo-paramilitary drug gangs. The Uribe administration, visibly irritated, responded with a series of insults and harsh accusations. Defense Minister Gabriel Silva said the report aimed to discredit his government’s security policy, cancelled a meeting with the Americas director of Human Rights Watch and declared that the government would “not be afraid” of the NGO and its criticisms.
Unfortunately for Uribe, his government’s aggressive response to the report only raised further questions about its commitment to human rights, at a time when such questions are beginning to hurt Colombia’s international standing. Jim McGovern, a U.S. Congressman, recently told Colombian daily El Espectador that extrajudicial executions by the Colombian military (also known as “false positives”) were a major concern among politicians in Washington. McGovern was one of several U.S. legislators who signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to reconsider U.S. relations with Colombia because of the Colombian government’s questionable human rights record.
During the Bush years, such arguments didn’t have much of an audience in the White House, but there are reasons to believe that the new Democratic administration will be more receptive to human rights concerns. Last week, the U.S. government announced a $55 million reduction in aid to Colombia. In Colombia, politicians and observers interpreted the move as a sign of growing distance between Washington and Bogota. In reality, the reduction is relatively small and probably had more to do with America’s budget crisis than with a change of heart in Washington. Still, there can be no doubt that the dire state of human rights under Uribe is playing an increasingly central role in Washington’s debates over Colombia policy.
To top it all off, an influential magistrate delivered a serious blow to Uribe’s hopes of a second re-election last Wednesday when he declared the re-election referendum unconstitutional. Humberto Sierra Porto, commissioned by Colombia’s Constitutional Court to study the referendum, released a report that outlined several blatant irregularities in its funding and processing. The future of Uribe’s second re-election bid depends on a forthcoming decision by the Constitutional Court on the legality of the referendum. Without the support of Sierra, an expert on Constitutional law with considerable influence among the members of the court, Uribe’s re-election referendum seems highly unlikely to pass.
So what’s next for Alvaro Uribe? The president is a political survivor; his resilience should not be underestimated. He quickly dodged the healthcare controversy and remains the leader in polls of prospective voters, even if he does not have majority support. But, unless the Constitutional Court approves the referendum and does so quickly, Uribe will not be running in the upcoming elections at all.
Still, even if the upcoming elections don’t feature Uribe as a candidate, his legacy will play a central role. In polls of prospective voters that exclude Uribe as an option, the president’s disciples still have a significant lead. When the president announces his choice of a personal successor, that candidate will certainly be the favorite. So even if Uribe himself isn’t the next president of Colombia, an uribista probably will be.