President Alvaro Uribe’s decision this week to authorize Senator Piedad Cordoba to mediate hostage releases by FARC guerrillas has been received with great relief, especially on the part of the hostages’ families, but also plenty of perplexity. An increasingly difficult political climate both at home and abroad may be part of the reason behind Uribe’s surprising move.
The FARC and the government had been in a stalemate since April, with the President repeatedly rejecting the guerrilla group’s condition that Senator Cordoba be present at the site because he would not allow the liberation to become guerrilla propaganda.
Uribe’s reversal is definitely unusual. The president is known for being consistent and confident, even stubborn. Rarely does he turn back so blatantly on a previous position, which has led to plenty of speculation about the reasons for his unexpected change of mind.
Opposition politicians have alleged that Uribe ceded to FARC conditions in order to create a political ‘smoke screen’ and protect himself from the growing ‘notary scandal’. Their claim may have some validity. The ‘notary scandal’ may be the President’s largest political problem in recent memory. While Uribe has managed to avoid domestic political consequences for many scandals during his presidency, from parapolitics to false positives, none have been linked so directly to the President as the emerging accusations of bribery in the process leading to the 2006 referendum.
Another hostage liberation would not only distract the public from this growing scandal, but it would also provide the President with a much-needed boost in political capital and national optimism. One year after operation Jaque, perhaps the high point of Uribe’s Presidency, there have been no similar blows against the FARC. In fact, the guerrilla group has managed to stay in the headlines with a series of significant ambushes.
Further, the crime waves affecting many of Colombia’s larger cities have exacerbated the growing sense of insecurity. While most people may not blame Uribe directly for local crime, they do see it as a reason for a change in policy. Whereas last year Colombians were celebrating Uribe’s Democratic Security policy and even looking forward to the end of the country’s decades-long armed conflict, these days there is a growing sense, even among some Uribistas, that the policy needs a change in focus, emphasis and implementation.
Finally, the sluggish economy, as evidenced by the recent announcement that Colombia is officially in recession, only adds to the sense that the country is on the wrong track. Indeed, Gallup polls show a 15-point drop in the President’s approval rating between July 2008, right after Operation Jaque, and May 2009.
Equally importantly, international support for President Uribe also seems to be weakening. British MPs dealt a significant symbolic blow to Uribe by ending military aid to Colombia, largely because of the ‘false positives’ scandal. Colombia’s far more important relationship with the United States has also entered a new, more complex era. Although Uribe’s recent meeting with President Obama was friendly, it is clear that the new American administration will not give Colombia the unconditional support it enjoyed under President Bush.
If Uribe’s move is not a ‘smoke screen’, it is at least an acknowledgment that he no longer has the political capital to single-handedly set the terms of hostage releases. Nevertheless, the President still enjoys the support of most Colombians and has shown a remarkable ability to survive very serious accusations and scandals. If this release goes well, it may just give Uribe renewed confidence on the domestic and international political stages.