Friday morning links How not to win over the Democrats
Apr 302007

Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, arrives in Washington Tuesday evening. He will be staying until Friday. This will be the Colombian government’s big offensive of the year in favor of the bilateral free-trade agreement and yet another 80-percent-military aid package.

Uribe’s agenda is heavily weighted toward meetings with congressional Democrats, who hold the key to decisions on both of these priorities. Many of these legislators have opposed Plan Colombia’s military focus in the past, and are skeptics of the free-trade agreement.

In many cases, these congressional Democrats will be meeting with Uribe for only the first or second time. Most will have only a passing familiarity with what is happening in Colombia.

The picture they have of Colombia’s leader is probably confusing and contradictory. Some have likely heard glowing accounts of how much safer and prosperous Colombia has become under Uribe, and how he is one of the United States’ only friends in a politically tumultuous region. Others, on the other hand, may have heard Uribe described as a monster who has tolerated – or even fostered – paramilitary groups, and who is bent on strengthening an abusive military in the name of free-market orthodoxy.

I’ve met Álvaro Uribe twice, seen him speak a few times, and have read dozens of his speeches in the 1,727 days since he became Colombia’s president. After all that time, I think there is some truth to both of these impressions.

The congressional Democrats and others who receive Uribe this week will be meeting with a very complex, even contradictory character. Though I disagree with many of Uribe’s positions, there are some things about him and his presidency that deserve admiration. But there is also a great deal that worries me greatly – and should worry those who meet with him this week. Here is a rundown.

The good. There are some things to praise about Álvaro Uribe.

– He is one of the most gifted politicians in the world, with an uncanny ability to connect with audiences on camera and over the airwaves. He knows how to put on a spectacle, and his speeches and public appearances routinely boost his poll numbers.

- Uribe – if he spoke English and was born here – would have no problem winning an election in the United States. He is clear about what he believes, whether you agree with him or not. Unlike too many prominent U.S. politicians, nobody could accuse him of being a panderer, a flip-flopper, or a slave to his consultants’ advice.

- Uribe’s work ethic is the stuff of legend. In a typical week he travels to three or four regions of Colombia, and perhaps a foreign country too. He is known for subsisting on five hours of sleep per night and rarely taking a day off.

- Uribe doesn’t seek power merely for its own sake; he clearly has a genuine interest in the nuts and bolts of governing. He is familiar with the minutiae of every ministry’s programs and budgets, and can recite statistics like a walking database.

- Though he has undeniably authoritarian tendencies, Uribe has not gone as far as his neighbor Hugo Chávez, who is ruling by decree and closing down opposition television stations.

- Uribe’s overwhelming focus on security has had enormous appeal inside Colombia. It appears to go beyond the rich landowner who is thrilled that he can once again drive between the city and his country villa. It also includes poorer residents of this rapidly urbanized (now 70% urban) country, most of them relatively new arrivals to Colombia’s cities, who can once again visit the rural towns where they (or their parents) came from.

- Unlike most right-wing politicians, Uribe doesn’t reject a state role in providing services to the poor. Though his main focus has been defense, he has expanded the national health system, spent more on education, and even promoted a program that gives cash payments to poor families who keep their kids in school. He has not cut taxes for the wealthiest.

The bad. There is much about Álvaro Uribe that worries us.

– Uribe, as noted above, is overwhelmingly focused on security in the most narrow sense. He has said that Colombia’s poverty and institutional weakness are a product of insecurity, and not the other way around. As a result, he has overseen a dramatic increase in Colombia’s security forces’ size and capabilities. He places a great deal of faith in the armed forces’ ability to resolve problems, and has sought to enlist everyday citizens as informants and “cooperators” in the cause of national security. This has greatly increased the militarization of Colombian society.

- While Uribe has deployed the armed forces throughout the country, he has lacked a similarly forceful effort against poverty, inequality and the weakness of civilian institutions. This unbalanced approach may improve security in the short term, but ultimately seems short-sighted, superficial and even dangerous. It is sort of like making the wall around one’s house a few feet higher, without changing conditions outside the wall.

- Uribe’s enthusiastic embrace of Washington’s punitive approach to drug supply-reduction – including a sharp escalation of aerial fumigation – has yielded no results. His popularity at home and good relations with the Bush administration make him uniquely well-positioned to push for a new anti-drug strategy, but Uribe has so far shown no inclination to do that.

- In a country with one of world’s highest rates of economic inequality, Uribe shows little concern for Colombia’s rich-poor divide. He appears to believe, against most countries’ experience, that an unfettered free market will resolve the yawning gap between the wealthy few and the poor majority.

- Uribe’s oldest, most passionate supporters – the core of his political base – are not the political mainstream but Colombia’s hard right. As in much of Latin America, this sector includes large landholders and agribusinessmen, who pay few taxes and who gave paramilitarism its initial boost. It includes hard-line sectors of the security forces. It includes people so socially conservative that they think the Catholic Church lost its way once it stopped giving mass in Latin. For now, Uribe has managed to rope into his coalition the part of Colombia’s elite that is more professional, enlightened and modernizing. But they are not his core supporters, and estrangement may increase as the “para-politics” scandal develops further.

- Uribe has shown little concern about his country’s alarming human rights situation. He cites statistics about declining murders as evidence of human-rights progress, but is very silent on the subject of impunity for abuses, past or present. He has done little to offer political or financial backing for investigations into allegations of government human-rights abuse. To the contrary, Uribe has consistently defended military officers accused of violations, while issuing harsh verbal attacks on the country’s community of non-governmental human-rights defenders.

- Some of Uribe’s attacks on human-rights groups and the political opposition are tantamount to death threats. It is one thing to say that a human-rights group’s work isn’t credible, or that it is sloppy or politically biased. In Colombia’s dangerous climate of constant threats and frequent assassinations, it is another thing entirely to call human-rights workers “terrorists” or allies of the guerrillas, as Uribe has done on many occasions.

- One reason the “para-politics” scandal has damaged Uribe’s overseas image is a longstanding perception that the president is soft on paramilitary groups. The AUC grew substantially in Antioquia department, with much support and virtually no opposition from the government, while he was governor from 1995 to 1997. In 1999, Uribe angrily and publicly defended generals who were fired under a cloud of accusations of helping paramilitaries. The first version of the “Justice and Peace” law that his government sent to Congress, in 2003, gave the right-wing militias a laughable degree of impunity and ability to keep their power and assets. He remains unwilling to extradite paramilitary leaders to the United States on drug-trafficking charges.

- Uribe’s style is often described as “micro-managing.” He does not delegate authority well, favors personalistic events like “town hall meetings” where he listens to individual citizens’ complaints, and is known to bark out orders to ministers like the patrón of an hacienda. Three years before Colombia’s next elections, Uribe has no heir apparent. The lack of a likely successor to such a popular president should lead us to wonder whether Uribe plans to stay in power for a long time.

One Response to “A complicated president en route to Washington”

  1. jcg Says:

    A very comprehensive and balanced summary, and one I can mostly agree with myself.

    Though there are certain details, such as the mention of AUC instead of ACCU, that I’d annoyingly nitpick about, I think it addresses most of the characteristics that make Uribe much less than a Angel, but also much less than a Devil.

    And I say that as a person who opposes him, many of his close friends and a lot of his political beliefs, but not to the point of absolute demonization.

    Finally, there might not be a single likely successor right now, but several “heir-apparents” are quite openly lurking around and moving their political tokens.

    Even if Uribe’s ambitions and authoritarian personality eventually got the most of him, Colombia has stronger (though admittedly weak by first world standards) institutions than one would think at first sight.

    It wouldn’t be the first time that a would-be dictator’s plans have failed in Colombia, despite his popularity. But that is only a hypothesis, and history can of course be more creative than that.

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