Despite his immense popularity in Colombia, Alvaro Uribe is facing an array of legal and political problems in his first months out of office. Unfortunately for him, more trouble is sure to come.
A number of weeks ago, I wrote a column about President Juan Manuel Santos’s surprising eagerness (and ability) to lead a government very different in its tone and priorities from that of his wildly popular predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. The divergence really began a few days before Santos was inaugurated, when he began preparing for the resumption of normal diplomatic relations with Venezuela even as Uribe publicly accused Hugo Chavez of supporting the FARC.
Whether or not one believes that there were behind-the-scenes tensions between Uribe and his disciple over the Venezuela issue, it has since become clear that Santos has a significantly different vision for the country than many people imagined. In his first months in office, he has made victims’ rights and compensation a centerpiece of his political agenda. He has continued to engage in friendly and constructive talks with some of Uribe’s left-leaning adversaries in the region, from Venezuela to Ecuador and beyond. As I wrote last week, Santos unexpectedly defied Uribista tradition by intervening in U.S. domestic politics, accusing the Americans of hypocrisy over a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in California.
Uribe, one can imagine, is just as surprised as anyone about how all of this has turned out. Not too long ago, Uribe had enough political capital to virtually hand-pick his successor, and he chose to back Santos. Now, his former Defense Minister is changing course with remarkable success. Colombians doubtless prefer normal diplomatic relations with Chavez; even if the Venezuelan is a nuisance, he was even more annoying and downright dangerous in combination with the equally aggressive Uribe. Similarly, although there are legitimate disagreements about the victims’ compensation initiatives, fact that Colombia is finally taking serious steps to address the human cost of its armed conflict is a cause for celebration.
But perhaps Santos’s un-Uribelike agenda is the least of the former presidents’ troubles. In the past few weeks, Uribe has gotten remarkably bad press for a man with astronomically high approval ratings. To be fair, Uribe does have some things to be happy about. He now has a visiting role at Georgetown University, a prestigious American college, and recently won a number of official awards, most notably a Spanish prize for his accomplishment in fighting terrorism.
On the other hand, both of these relatively minor achievements have been double-edged swords. Uribe’s Georgetown gig has gotten as much press for the human rights protesters who oppose it as for his actual lectures. Even though the anti-Uribe movement on campus is small, it has successfully drawn media attention. A for the prize in Spain, over one hundred legal and human rights groups have signed an official petition against Uribe’s award.
Meanwhile, back home, many of the former president’s oldest scandals have begun to catch up with him. It has been years since the media discovered that Colombia’s intelligence services had illegally wiretapped dozens of politicians, activists, journalists and public figures, the vast majority of them vocal Uribe opponents. Interestingly however, in the past few weeks investigations into the issue have quickly climbed higher and higher up the government hierarchy. One of the latest victims was Bernardo Moreno, Uribe’s former personal secretary, who received an 18-yaer public office ban for actively ordering the wiretaps.
Uribe has done his best to shield himself from blame but, somewhat predictably, he is losing this battle. RCN, a prominent and slightly government-friendly news organization, revealed that Uribe himself had been personally informed of the wiretaps as they were occurring, according to former officials. Other media outlets have published similar accusations by other high-ranking sources. Now, the former President is under investigation by Congress.
As if that were not enough, Uribe has also been drawn back into other legal problems. One involves his cousin, Mario Uribe, who was recently sent to jail for ties to right-wing paramilitary death squads. Although the former President managed to avoid much direct involvement in his cousin’s problems while in office, now a judge has accused him of calling and asking about Mario’s case, in violation of countless laws.
Several of the former president’s other close associates are in equally deep trouble. Former Interior Minister Sabas Pretelt was recently handed a 12-year public office ban for bribing officials to support Uribe’s 2006 re-election referendum. The fact that the former president resorted to his Twitter account to defend Pretelt is, in more ways than one, a telling sign of the times. Two former Agriculture ministers also face charges for their role in a program designed to support the rural poor, but whose funds were somehow diverted to wealthy Colombian families, most of them significant Uribe supporters.
Finally, as many had predicted, rumors that foreign countries could prosecute Uribe for human rights abuses and other crimes are closer than ever to becoming a reality. A Swiss Senator who is active on relations with Colombia has said that Uribe’s referral to the International Criminal Court is not beyond the realm of possibility. The Georgetown protest group, with the backing of several prominent U.S. academics, has officially alerted the U.S. Department of Justice about the former president’s alleged crimes. If Washington rumors are to be believed, more such efforts to hold Uribe accountable for human rights abuses are coming.
In sum, although Uribe’s legacy remains intact in the eyes of mainstream Colombians, the former president’s first months in “retirement” have been anything but relaxing.
The good news in all of this – for everyone but Uribe – is that this process has reconfirmed the strength of Colombia’s democratic institutions. Few Latin American legal systems would be able to put so much pressure on high-ranking members of a recent government that remains highly popular, and whose allies still occupy nearly every key position in the executive and legislature. Colombia is on pace to uncover the truth about Uribe-era abuses sooner than many expected, and the former president can only hope that these robust investigations will reveal his innocence.