Farewell to the sheriff: Colombia after Álvaro Uribe

 |  21 de junio de 2010

Colombia is a reflection of itself. Faithful to its constitutional vellums, the constitutional court of this country denied Álvaro Uribe the chance to become the repetitive president of such a nation by declaring the referendum he proposed, which would have enabled him to govern to 2014, unconstitutional. For some the decision was a victory that stated the iron-clad democratic values that prevail, not to be taken lightly, but in any case the verdict reveals the atypical case of Colombia as nation on the South American continent in which rulers tend to prolong their stay.

When in the seventies the region began an affair with right-wing military dictatorships, Colombia preferred to keep a low-profile civilian government backed by the army, and now as left-wing populist governments seize power the country holds onto the right by moving closer to Washington; if there is a moratorium of payments on foreign debt the country shows reliability by implementing austerity programs and meeting payments; if elsewhere there are interventions by the state then the country opts for sale of state-owned concerns to private investors, and so on and so forth. From general categories it is an unintelligible country. Thus the night that the court denied the chance of a referendum there was greater uncertainty outside the country than within, with neither jubilee nor sadness. Possibly the two years of pondering the petals of the love-me or love-me-not daisy produced such an extenuated society that any decision became vital. Political and media brouhaha froze public agendas. The court ended this by spurring elections for congress, and primary rounds for conservative and green parties, on March 14.

Historically Colombia has had more formal institutionalism than real democracy. It is a land of laws and constitutions. From the dawn of the republic men such as Francisco de Paula Santander was named the hombre de las leyes. Hence began the civil tradition. The current chairman of the court, Mauricio González, states that the independence movement of 1810 was not so much an ideal of freedom as the desire for a constitution. The purpose of the supreme junta that threw the viceroy out of office on July 20 of that year, and called for a general congress of the kingdom, was to write and issue a constitution. The “august and unfortunate” Ferdinand VII was agreed upon in such a congress as a ruler albeit under “constitutional domination.” Bolívar too bumped into an excessive legality and the liberal party opposed the 1826-28 constitutional projects by labeling it a monarchy wearing a republican suit. If anything, Colombia has ground out laws like a mill. Such a constitutionalist spirit lasting two centuries of republican life trashed all endeavors at amending the constitution during the last half of the twentieth century and inspired magistrates to say nay to this reelection referendum despite all predictions of an arranged stay, which some advocates forecast. Mr Uribe may not aspire to more power now or in the future. It is simply over.

The idea of a re-born country

The question being asked by many is what will Colombia be like without Uribe. A high rating, 70% according to polls, after a somewhat languid government by Andrés Pastrana from 1998-02, stemming from a deep economic crisis, failed peace talks and what is known today as an Estado fallido controlled by the far right often financed by drug cartels, allowed Uribe to corner guerrilla forces, then dismantle right-wing military groups and lure foreign investment to a safe land, resulting in admiration of other states, enterprises and the press. Uribe became an ally of George W. Bush, who sought support for a worldwide war on terrorism, as well as coining the term narco-terrorist which placed Colombia in the antipodes of where Pastrana had left it years before, thus changing the framework. In 2002 Mr Uribe grasped the threat of a nation on the verge of armed conflict fatigue and began a search for negotiated solutions by driving the forces of war. Mr Uribe became a sheriff whose high-noon stance allowed him to use simpler language that people related to, the opposite of puzzling, cryptic terms used by intellectuals, by polarizing right from wrong, by telling people he would go to the lair of the serpent and cut its head off. Not a man to keep to gestures or rhetoric, Uribe tripled the number of army members, sent office soldiers into combat and reached a climax on March 1, 2008 by sending helicopters across the border to take out a camp in the jungle of Ecuador, killing Raúl Reyes, a leader of the FARC forces, among others. This forage became known as Operación Fénix and turned into a heated and complex diplomatic crisis involving Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia, the consequences which have lasted to date.

Uribe clearly understood the mandate he received in 2002, namely, war on the FARC. He never hesitated, just the opposite, he engaged indifferent, neutral allies. If Correa or Chávez posed a threat he believed in confronting them, on one occasion the former telling the latter “be a man!” at a presidential summit held by the Grupo de Rio. As Ingrid Betancourt was to tell after her sensational liberation in 2008, the reelection of Uribe in 2006 changed the liturgy to which the rebel forces were used to. Every four years the president appointed peace commissioners who revealed that the war on rebellious armed forces would have neither amnesties nor exchanges, resulting in an overwhelming defeat for those who believed they could count on less repressive dealings. The FARC, though defeated, are not eliminated. Last February this force assaulted several towns in Cauca without any combat involving the Colombian army, and as soldier Pablo Emilio Moncayo, a sergeant who was in the hands of rebel forces for twelve years, said, “such a force does exist, it is a reality that can hardly be denied. They seem invisible, but they are there.” Their extermination is unlikely. Perhaps social and geographical conditions impede it. Colombia differs from Peru, where the group known as Sendero Luminoso and another lesser group called Tupac Amaru were annihilated. Uribe was at most able to return the country to what, in matters of military might, it was twenty years ago.

Stubborn poverty

The structural problems persist in Colombia. To begin with, social problems. One in two citizens lack income that would allow them to purchase staples, in Spanish known as the canasta básica de bienes y servicios. According to the Cepal, a commission in charge of researching South American and Caribbean affairs, Colombia is the second poorest land, after Bolivia, in South America, with a rate of 46.8 percent poor and 22 percent beggars. During the last twenty years GDP has grown though not for covering the basic needs of the population or for improving utilities and infrastructure. Twenty-one million people live without tap water, water being an abundant resource in the country. The gap between richest and poorest, 10% the former, 10% the latter, has widened. Of income, 49.1% goes to the wealthiest ten percent whereas 0.9% reaches the less poor. Approaching such disparity would seem either politically correct or electorally profitable but priorities are placed in other settings, mainly the one of combating rebel forces even when polls show that the government highlights the problems of unemployment, poverty and corruption. Social demand drowns under repression and illegality. Uribe has realized the extent of such drama by denominating himself a super administrator of aid programs that work through the Oficina de Acción Social, which attends three million Colombians who live in eight hundred hamlets (out of 1000 townships) and by travelling to the four corners of the nation to hold councils. His language includes terms like “those who have not known a single day of peace” or “investment confidence” in order to “generate wealth with social responsibility” or even country bumpkin expressions like “you all know how much I like to support our army and cane them bandits but I got to confess I just like even more to give a health card to one of my countrymen” which is, perhaps right-wing populism, but populism nonetheless. Of the three electoral promises comprising terrorism, corruption and poverty Uribe merely kept the first as stated in data provided by the czar in charge of fighting corruption, which reveals that 12.9 % of resources of the country are spent in bribes. This is money that could be allocated to health and education, sewers and aqueducts. Drug money causes detriment to morale and prudence, and corruption like a cancer grows.

The 2009 ranking provided by International Transparency fell 5 points from position 70 to 75 in the same category as Brazil or Peru. Uribe seems splashed by such unpleasant phenomena and even more when men like Andrés Felipe Arias, deemed noble by the president himself, are involved in scandals referring to subsidies and credit lines given to cronies through an office called Agro Ingreso Seguro. Each customer in this scheme enables Uribe to remain in power but when reelected in 2006 he sine die proclaims a struggle against corruption under the banner “the defeat of terrorism.” Points to ponder include the prestige of Uribe, the legitimacy of the army, and the respect for democracy. The Colombian secret service, known by its acronym DAS, was engaged in wire tapping, sabotage and manipulation of NGO’s. Magistrates, members of the supreme court and union leaders were tapped by an authority who seems to remain unknown at least until August 7 of this year. Even if Juan Manuel Santos is elected president and is spared the wrath of his political enemies the mentioned candidate will have his hands full of other allegations, such as body counts, probably 2000 victims, when he served as Minister of Defense, an ongoing inquiry that involves 33 brigades of the army.

Doubts regarding the elections

The demon of politicking is alive and kicking, beginning with the murkiness of the electoral system. Last March elections were a fraud carnival. The Consejo Nacional Electoral, known as the CNE, has received dozens of claims regarding elections in 16 of the 32 departments of the country, including Bogotá. Sloppy typing, scratches on the ballots, arithmetic mistakes, tables with more votes than voters, purchasing of votes and limited access to voters. It may take months to define the composition of the senate, in July, just a few days before its inauguration. “He who votes, elects,” was said in Colombia in the last century. What little faith there has been in the system worsened by vote purchasing in the countryside, since elections held recently show that Chocó and Valle del Cauca reveal an unexpected number of voters and that in 11 towns of that department there was an increase of 320% in ballots cast. The PIN party with its presiding leader, who launched it a month and a half before elections, won. Several politicians who are friendly to right-wing death squads later joined other politicians who are currently being investigated, eighty to be exact, including a cousin of the president of the country. According to the MOE which is a mission for supervising elections, at least 35 new senators have inquiries pending or are relatives of similar cases. In the chamber of representatives it is no better. The government meanwhile seems to care not. In spite of what the government says, in contrast to 2002 and 2006, there will be a second round of elections. Juan Manuel Santos, a former minister, presidential designee and journalist who stems from a family who previously owned a newspaper before selling it to a Spanish group, leads the government-backed party. His speech seems a copy of Uribe’s, of little political coherence. Late to arrive on the Uribe gravy train, Mr Santos now has the support of the Partido de la U. Patience and submission taught him to wait his turn while forming coalitions with others, conservatives as well, the former ambassador to Spain Carlos Rodado, for instance, and statesmen in Washington. He was the sponsor of the transfer of a US base in Manta, Ecuador to seven locations in Colombia, for which reason he will, if elected, likely antagonize his neighbors, among them Chávez, as deeply and regularly as possible. Chávez has stated that his decision to normalize relations with Colombia depends on who will be chosen for the presidency for Santos represents a continuity of entrepreneurial and political tradition, to the extent that he has said that if he becomes the president of the nation he would be willing to appoint Uribe as the minister of defense.

Antanas Mockus was once the director of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and went on to become mayor of Bogotá on two occasions before founding what is known in the country as the Partido Verde or green party, not of particularly strong ecological trend though, and together with Enrique Penalosa and Lucho Garzón, former mayors who sought strength through numbers as much as a political novelty, set out to gain political edge. Should he achieve communication with the voters he could provide a surprise. Idealogically an urbane conservative, Mockus favors order and respect. A tad eccentric, he studied mathematics and philosophy and tends to clash with orthodox politics, once mooning an entire audience at the university as a sign of protest. His real strength lies in his honesty and integrity yet by many could be interpreted as a naïve character. He has confessed to a mild form of Parkinson’s which instead of weakening his popularity has made it stronger. His campaign has been reinforced by Sergio Fajardo, a former mayor of Medellín and who would become vice-president in the eventuality of an electoral victory.

Noemí Sanín, a former minister in the administrations of Belisario Betancourt and César Gaviria, and an ambassador in the ones of  Ernesto Samper and Uribe, is the official conservative candidate and became such after a close edge over Andrés Felipe Arias. She has probed different political trends outside the conservative line and has brought fresh air to the old rivalry with the liberal party. Sanín faces two challenges, namely, to avoid any link with an excessively lax hand against the rebel forces, known in Colombia as pastranización, and to maintain unity in the party, generally called misión imposible by the press and political critics, plus keep the wolves of Santos at bay.

Gustavo Petro, leader of the Polo Democrático party, known for his alliances with left-wing groups, is admired by his detractors as courageous. His past as a freedom-fighter, or guerrillero, is a great disadvantage in a country that was once held hostage by such forces. His debates in congress against corruption and right-wing death squads have gained him deep enmity. Few critics believe he has a chance at the presidency, at least for now.

Rafael Pardo, once a minister under the César Gaviria government and peace counselor under the Virgilio Barco one, represents liberal tendency but does badly in the polls. He could face off with Sanín or Mockus in search of the second-round ticket. Germán Vargas Lleras, a grandson of a former statesman, played with the possibility of becoming an heir to the legacy of Uribe and went on to found the Cambio Radical party but fell out with Uribe in matters such as the re-election campaign. His stance is far right and but is getting tougher and tougher to use in the tactic of eclipsing Uribe as a strongman. He could join Santos in a second round although he could call it quits before the first round too. These characters are basically the chess pieces on the board, the queen, the knights, the towers, the pawns, under the supreme rule, or reign, of the high and mighty king.

The economy

In economic matters the next administration could ratify three treaties for free trade with the US, Canada and the EU which have stalled due to human rights violations in recent months. Such treaties could provide Colombia with an edge over its neighbors that use different economic models, though without a modern framework of railroads, highways and ports Colombia could not compete as well as intended. Any FTA could also generate higher unemployment mainly in industry and farming. Foreign investors have learned to do business in Colombia. An unexpected 30% increase in the reevaluation of the Colombian peso in recent years has not yielded to the decision of the constitutional court to deny the referendum, in fact many investors are thrilled. The next elections could be another anecdote as they could be the chance to get oil, now at a production rate of 800, 000 bpd, or to cash in on the 5 billion dollars remitted yearly by Colombians working abroad. Oil, remittances, foreign investment and drug money make for a profitable scheme indeed. The elections held on May 30, and June 20 if they go to a second round, will be the first to exclude the rebel forces as a major player. The deceased leader of the FARC Manual Marulanda brought Andrés Pastrana to a peaceful presidency in 1998 but also brought Álvaro Uribe as a warmonger in 2002. The elections of 2010 seem to herald no threat from these rebel forces even if the team of Uribe and Santos would love to raise it again.

Contemporary politics are being woven into different tapestry and citizens are often becoming actors for an audience that has been weaned on immediate, participative media tactics, a reality show in which an Indian from Bolivia rises to power after five hundred years, a union leader in Brazil gets to office, a bishop in Paraguay defeats a traditional party and an Afro-American enters the White House. Ther is in every case an almost fascinating poetic tale, with ideology coming in second. Which tale will prevail? The obsequious disciple of continuity? The philosopher who yearns to defeat a swarm of tin pot dictators? The woman who wishes to be the first as a president? The heir who defends his right to a legacy?

The menu is broad, not an easy thing to guaranty, in Colombia anything can happen, even nothing can happen at all.

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