Washington's most reliable ally in Latin America, the Colombian president, is on his way out. That's a good thing.
- By Adam IsacsonAdam Isacson is director of the Colombia Program of the Center for International Policy.
If a U.S. president spent both terms with approval ratings hovering above 70 percent, what would happen during his eighth year? Would his party use its majority control of Congress and the states to undo the 22nd Amendment, allowing him to run again … and again? Would he be allowed to serve until he had handpicked the entire Supreme Court and wielded virtually unchecked power — all so long as his ratings were kept high?
For the last several years in the Andean country of Colombia, this question has not been hypothetical. President Álvaro Uribe, an archconservative first elected in 2002, has won unprecedented high marks for his can-do attitude, workaholic image, and perhaps most of all, a military strategy that pushed violent guerrilla groups out of most population centers after a decade-long defense buildup. Last fall, a national poll found that 46 percent of Colombians believed that nobody but Uribe was even capable of governing the country. And in Washington, arguably Bogotá’s most important ally, Uribe is lauded as an unwavering partner in maintaining regional security, not least in the war on drugs. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s meeting with him in Uruguay earlier this week was probably one of the easiest she’ll have on her Latin America trip.
Not too long ago, it looked like Uribe might be so popular that he would be allowed to stick around past his current mandate, set to end in August. Then at the eleventh hour, on Feb. 27, a third Uribe term was struck down by the country’s Constitutional Court — a blow to Uribe’s supporters and, some worry, to the United States. It’s easy to buy into the near personality cult of Uribe (his supporters adore him so much that they call themselves uribistas). But in losing its best ally in office, the United States might gain an even better democratic friend over the long haul.
Four years ago, a constitutional change allowed the Colombian president to be elected to a second term, and not surprisingly, Uribe was. Still not satiated, the president’s partisans began a campaign in late 2008 for yet another amendment that would clear the way for a third term. (Uribe never said clearly whether he wanted to stay put, but he did nothing to stop the momentum either.) Last September, Colombia’s Congress gave the green light for a referendum vote on the proposed constitutional amendment, and polls showed that the referendum was likely to pass. Uribe was also likely to win handily in the next election, set for May 30.
Before the constitutional plebiscite could be scheduled, however, an obstacle remained: The country’s Constitutional Court had to certify that the referendum law was approved through a legal, legitimate process. On Feb. 26, the court determined that, in fact, several procedural requirements, ranging from the amount spent on a signature-gathering campaign to the timing of the congressional debate to the wording of the referendum question, had been blatantly ignored. The referendum was struck down, and Uribe, limited to two terms, will leave office in five months.
This is good news for Colombia, however sour uribistas may be. The country’s Constitutional Court, an institution created by the 1991 Constitution, did exactly what it was supposed to do: act as a check on executive power. By refusing to let that document be changed to benefit one individual, the court struck a blow against Latin America’s tradition of caudillismo, or strongman rule, and distinguished Colombia from regional neighbors, like Venezuela, that have proved unable to do the same. A Feb. 27 Ipsos poll found Colombians evenly split, 46 to 46 percent, on whether the court’s decision was correct, though a plurality agreed that the decision "was good for democracy."
In fact, despite many gains, Uribe was no perfect president. He did not defeat the worst of the guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the last year has seen an increase in both its activity and that of newly forming narco-paramilitary gangs. The gangs caused the murder rate in Medellín, former home of the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, to double from 2008 to 2009. The Uribe years also saw great concentration of wealth among the upper classes, in what was already one of the world’s most unequal societies. Perceptions of corruption are increasing, including alleged ties between government officials and organized crime. And drug production in Colombia, though a bit lower in 2008 than in 2007, has remained remarkably unchanged over the past decade.
So it’s good for everyone that Colombia now faces a hotly contested campaign for the May 30 presidential election. Several of the candidates are competing for the mantle of uribismo (including one Andrés Felipe Arias, a 36-year-old former agriculture minister who is so close to the president that Colombians call him "Uribito," or "little Uribe"). Others are in the political opposition or propose a "third way," endorsing Uribe’s security policies but staying more open to ideas like peace negotiations, taxing the wealthy, or reformulating drug policy. With Uribe out, no candidate is likely to win a majority on May 30, so the vote is likely to go to a second round a month later.
The front-runner is Uribe’s former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, with 23 percent of intended votes, the same Ipsos poll found. Santos is a scion of a newspaper publishing family and a longtime heavyweight of Colombia’s political class. As defense minister, he was closely associated with military operations that dealt unprecedented blows to FARC. He also made headlines for blistering criticisms of the leftist governments of Venezuela and Ecuador, at times forcing his boss to distance himself from his own minister’s statements. Santos is a formidable politician — a calculating pragmatist who knows how power works in Colombia. He does, however, come across as a patrician lacking charisma and likability, which could cost him votes.
The No. 2 candidate, polling at 11 percent, is no uribista: Gustavo Petro, a former member of the now-disbanded April 19 Movement (M-19) guerrilla group, is the most left-wing of the candidates. Petro became a popular senator by denouncing corruption, especially ties between politicians (most of them Uribe supporters) and right-wing paramilitary death squads. As a candidate, Petro has been tacking to the center, seeking to assuage citizens’ security concerns, but his party lacks the capacity to get out the vote.
But perhaps the most interesting candidate to watch is Sergio Fajardo, the center-left former mayor of Medellín, who scored 9 percent in the Feb. 27 poll. Fajardo is charismatic, and many associate him with the last decade’s drop in the city’s crime rate that brought a wave of prosperity.
All of these potential leaders, including the center-left Petro, would likely maintain good relations with the United States, not least because Colombia has been the No. 1 destination for U.S. assistance outside the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The U.S.-educated Santos, for one, has most assiduously cultivated relations with Washington and has given the strong impression that he would share current U.S. priorities on counternarcotics, economic policy, and the management of Colombia’s internal conflict. As the status quo candidate, he is likely the private first choice of many in Barack Obama’s administration.
Had the Constitutional Court given Uribe the green light, however, the Obama administration’s ties with Colombia would have grown far more complicated. In recent months, Uribe had adopted the slogan "Rule of Opinion," which he said outweighed the "rule of law," increasing concerns about the health of democratic institutions. Corruption among the president’s political allies, the subject of several recent scandals, was unlikely to be checked in a third term. Uribe has also come under fire from U.S. Democrats in the last several years for extrajudicial killings and union leader assassinations that some linked to the president’s allies. And the parallel with third-term President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela would have exposed Washington to charges of holding a double standard.
That would have made it more difficult for Colombia to get what it wants from Washington as well. Obama has declared his support for congressional ratification of a U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement signed back in 2006. Selling it to Democrats in Congress would have been impossible if Colombia were governed by a third-term president unwilling to cede power. Even now, ratification is extremely unlikely in 2010, a year of double-digit unemployment and legislative elections in the United States. But without Uribe in power, Obama will be far more likely to push for ratification in 2011.
To be sure, Colombia’s next president will face some daunting challenges — perhaps one reason that uribistas were eager to have their president in power for a few more years. But the truth is, Uribe might not have been the best man for the job. The military-centered, clientelistic, and wealth-concentrating policies of the Uribe years are not likely to be appropriate in meeting future challenges — and the United States’ own drug and security policies will have to adjust as well. As the on-the-ground reality continues to evolve rapidly, the candidate who promises to mimic Álvaro Uribe most closely may not be Colombia’s best choice, or the United States’ best ally.