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Colombia – Alvaro Uribe forever

In Latin America, apart from Colombia which remains a Conservative highly-militarised country, the left has become the establishment
Michael McCaughan

The Latin-American left has moved into government in the past decade with Hugo Chavez (Venezuela, 1998), leading the charge and former Tupamaro guerrilla Pepe Mujica the latest to join, after Uruguay’s November election.  Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador have added their votes to the progressive tide but one country stands apart from the trend.  Colombia remains a conservative, highly militarised society, governed by Alvaro Uribe, whose political roots lie in the landed oligarchy and its paramilitary enforcers.  Uribe’s father was killed by left-wing rebels during a botched kidnap attempt in 1983, an event which has given his anti-subversive campaign the air of a personal crusade.  A lawyer and landowner, Uribe was elected president in 2002 on a campaign promise of ‘Democratic Security’ in a country torn apart by violence and fear.  President Uribe afforded extra powers to the military, established a network of informers in rural areas, and replaced civilian authorities with military officials in disputed zones.  A close ally of the Bush administration, Uribe offered troops for Iraq and this year he signed over seven airstrips to the US army to replace military bases shut down in neighbouring countries.  US political influence is on the wane in the region with Brazilian president Lula da Silva emerging as spokesman for an alternative power bloc looking toward China, the Middle East and the EU to counterbalance US economic and political dominance.

The Uribe era has seen a societal shift in which the country’s armed forces have moved centre stage with troop numbers doubled, new technology acquired, and a presidential pledge of immunity for their actions.  President Uribe then began to demobilise the country’s right-wing paramilitary forces which had previously worked closely with the army to suppress dissent.  The ‘paras’, funded by landowners and industrialists, became big business operatives, using their money and muscle to buy influence in parliament, where they control at least one third of elected officials.  However, the process unravelled when paramilitary leaders, fearing lengthy prison sentences, implicated dozens of politicians, including some of Uribe’s closest allies, in their illegal activities.  Colombia’s Congress passed a Peace and Justice Law which provided for very short prison sentences in return for confessions, yet 7,000 paras remain outside the process.

President Uribe’s ambitious plans have been damaged by allegations of human rights abuses, particularly the scandal of the ‘false positives’ – where young men are detained by the military, shot dead, dressed in fatigues and presented as guerrillas killed in action.  At least 812 citizens have been killed in this manner since Uribe assumed office, sparking comparisons with 1970s Argentina, where thousands of citizens were ‘disappeared’ during the dictatorship.  The false positives are a direct result of Alvaro Uribe’s insistence on measuring progress in the war through a body count.  Army troops are rewarded with cash bonuses, extra leave and in some cases promotion.  President Uribe, obsessed with statistics, gets to address the nation and announce his ongoing successes.  However, the international human-rights community is catching up on the Colombian leader.  Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extra judicial executions, issuing a hard-hitting report which described the false positives as “systematic and premeditated cold-blooded murder”, compounded by the ‘systematic harassment’ by the military of victims’ relatives seeking justice.  The Obama administration has withheld funds from Uribe over the false positives scandal but with few allies in the region, it is unlikely Obama will put any further pressure on Colombia over the killings.

Colombia has a vibrant political tradition but the left has been unable to organise freely for elections as the country’s ruling elite has consistently resorted to violence, killing off popular candidates and their campaigning supporters.  The left has also suffered from its historic association with the armed movement, once popular but now reviled, for its associations with drugs and kidnapping.  More than a third of Colombian voters live in Bogota, which has elected left-wing mayors but urban success has yet to create a nationwide platform from which to launch a serious presidential challenge.  President Uribe has issued decrees and legislation which have eroded judicial independence while the chronic war in the countryside has left four million citizens displaced and Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist, with dozens murdered each year.  In a symbol of shifting political sentiment over the failed drug war, Mexico and Argentina have decriminalised individual drug possession, even heroin, as governments reflect on the costly failure of the ‘drug war’.  Uribe is marching to a different tune, introducing legislation which would make possession of a single cannabis joint not just a criminal offence but the trigger for an automatic psychiatric assessment and the potential for mandatory treatment.

One thing Uribe does have in common with his left-wing nemeses is a desire to remain in power.  He altered the constitution to allow him to run a second time in 2006 and now a third time in 2010.  He looks certain to win that next contest.  If elected, he will govern until 2014 and he has made no secret of his desire to remain in power until 2019, the anniversary of Colombian independence from Spain.  The longer Uribe remains in power the more likely he will fall from grace as rights abuses pile up and the economy continues its downward slide.  The success of Uribe, built on doctored statistics and the ruthless suppression of dissent, may yet be revealed as a cruel illusion, just as the false positives have been revealed as a cruel hoax against innocent civilians.  Colombia is facing increased isolation, as even moderates like Brazil’s President Lula have forcefully criticised the Colombian decision to offer military bases to the US army.

Venezuela’s Chavez has gone a step further, ordering troops to deploy at the border.  However, high-decibel rhetoric is unlikely to translate into action on the ground as economic growth remains more important than ideological posturing.  Uribe and Chavez have signed up to a critical gas pipeline deal while Uribe faces more pressing challenges at home where even the Bishops have quietly called on the hard-working leader to “rest up” in 2010 and consider other ways to serve his country.