McCain in Colombia: don’t embody “Bush’s third term” in Latin America Hostage rescue may have occurred
Jul 022008

John McCain’s trip to Cartagena has occurred at an odd moment in Colombia’s political development. The Republican nominee is heaping praise on President Álvaro Uribe at a time when the popular president’s confrontation with his country’s judicial system – a byproduct of his unexpressed but obvious desire to run for a third term – has polarized the country.

Things are so bad that yesterday, the President of the Supreme Court had to call a press conference to affirm that “We haven’t pressured the President or the Congress nor do we legitimize terrorism.”

It is important at this point to express support for Colombia’s judicial institutions. Though they have never had an easy time of it, at this moment they are critical for the many efforts Colombia must undertake if it is to put behind it the nightmares of the past few decades.

Making “justice and Peace” work, guaranteeing victims’ rights, punishing all “para-politicians,” clarifying state responsibility for human rights abuses, breaking narcotrafficking organizations’ power, even enforcing property rights – pursuing all of these goals means following a path that leads right through Colombia’s judicial system.

Despite their crucial importance, Colombia’s judicial institutions normally don’t get much attention. Here are a few quick readings to put things in perspective.

President Uribe is the most popular president, possibly in all of our history, and even exceeds most of his colleagues in today’s world. But popular support is no substitute for the norms that regulate the exercise of power and is not an argument to lengthen presidential terms beyond what the constitution specifies. Nor to risk the checks and balances that are indispensable in a democracy. Popularity does not exempt government officials from obeying the law. The country has never before needed as much reason and wisdom as it does now.

- From Sunday’s editorial in El Tiempo.

Instead of respecting the separation of powers and waiting for the procedures designed under the law to run their course – and giving the Constitutional Court time to resolve the reelection issue – the institutions are being jumped over [through the referendum proposal] in order to appeal directly to the public. The message has a strong authoritarian component: the judicial branch can say what it wants, but ultimately, he will do what the masses demand.

- From the cover story in this week’s Semana magazine.

After what happened last week, I fear that the country is literally divided in two, and that each of the two parts seems ever more distant and irreconcilable. One one side is Álvaro Uribe, the most popular president in Colombia’s recent history, but also the most uninterested in norms and laws. … On the other side is the Supreme Court of Justice, which does not measure its greatness by its popularity in the polls, but by its adherence to norms and law; a brave court that is not intimidated by anything and that has been able to confront the monster of para-politics when many thought that nobody had the guts to do so. … What we Colombians never imagined was that we would one day be forced to choose sides between these two Colombias.

- From Semana columnist María Jimena Duzán.

In less than a decade, this thousand-headed monster [paramilitarism] has taken over the state, infiltrating it at all levels. It is serious that this far into their supposed demobilization, it is still not possible to know how far they have penetrated the political sphere, much less the military, financial or business spheres. The scandals of the last few months (’para-politics’ in Congress) are nothing but the tip of the iceberg. … The violent ones, and their accomplices in power, never imagined that some men in togas, like a true suicide squadron, would stand up to defend the fatherland. The Penal Tribunal of the Supreme Court is the institutions’ last bastion against the barbarians.

- Parmenio Cuéllar, former Colombian justice minister, senator, and governor of Nariño department.

To be a judge, a good judge, in Colombia, is a thankless and frequently dangerous occupation. Traditionally, members of the judiciary come from the despised middle class. Consequently they play little or no role within the social structures of the elite. Intellectuals in a philistine and aggressive society, they are shamefully undervalued and wretchedly paid. To survive in the Colombian judiciary requires special qualities: integrity, idealism, and, in a violent land, unremitting courage. The same dedication to the rule of law that drives them to the top of their profession necessarily exposes them to the most danger.

- From The Palace of Justice: A Colombian Tragedy by Ana Carrigan (1993).

4 Responses to “Colombia’s besieged judicial institutions”

  1. Chris Says:

    Word is that they rescued the 3 x US hostages in Colombia, and Ingrid as well.

  2. Lou Says:

    We’ll see what happens. The Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Colombia (CUT) are holding a rally tomorrow to put pressure on Uribe, but the news of the hostage rescue has put everything in a tailspin.

  3. Jaime Bustos Says:

    This guy is a poor dunce. Not worth spending a single keystroke. :mrgreen:

  4. Tambopaxi Says:


    I know I’m as happy as everyone else about the hostage rescue. Still, it’s a shame that this important posting on the tension between the justice system and Uribe was forgotten completely in the excitement of the moment. I made the same lament about your posting on development and projection of GOC presence and authority in the Guaviare; these themes aren’t sexy, but they’re much more important, a grandes razgos, que the FARC and hostage releases, at least in my view.

    As Semana, El Tiempo and Duzan point out, a fundamental element of democracy (the justice system) is in danger of being marginalized, if not neutralized, by Uribe and his supporters who are cresting on a tidal wave of popularity. While everyone can understand Uribe’s popularity, I worry that just a few of the media elite and you (and many members of the justice system itself, of course) understand and appreciate what’s at risk when Uribe attacks the judiciary and the system.

    I think a lot of us suspect that Uribe’s motive in these attacks is to lay the ground work for a run at a third term, and more immediately, at amending the Constitution once again so that that third term is possible.

    I’ve said it here and elsewhere that Uribe shouldn’t get a third term, not because he hasn’t done a good job as President – he has – but because I believe that eight years is enough for any Mandatorio in LA (and I really, really include Chavez and Correa in this belief as well). Any more time than that as leader down here, and things start going bad, for the leader and for the country because they take each other (the leader and country) for granted, and that’s led to bad things down here in LA in the past.

    Latin America and its cultural and political ambientes are still too susceptible to the messiah syndrome ((I’d call it Mugabe madness, but we really need a more relevant regional metaphor; please supply it here) whereby Presidents down here begin to believe that their countries can’t survive without them,and that their extended, if not lifetime, leadership is essential to the well-being of the nation. Castro, Chavez, and Stroessner are more prominent examples of this malaise (and Correa is setting himself up to do the same thing) but it’s also clear that the syndrome applies to leaders of any political stripe, and Uribe is the case in point here.

    I join Duzan and the other editorial writers in expressing my fear that that tidal wave I mentioned will simply overwhelm the justice system and its check/balance role such that Uribe will roll to a third term. I hope not, but man, that wave looks pretty damn high right now….

    Finally, I hadn’t seen reference to Carrigan’s book in many moons. Great book and a hell of an adventure/disaster read…

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