Profile

Uribe Falls to Earth

Colombia's president is used to being wildly popular. But now, his flirtation with a third term may be getting him into trouble.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A year ago this week, Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe was on top of the world. Employing a clever ruse, one of the country’s elite army units miraculously (and bloodlessly) rescued 15 hostages who had been held in the jungle for years. The world applauded the operation’s stealth and savvy – and the release of the rebels’ top political hostage, French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, as well as three U.S. defense contractors and 11 soldiers and police.

Colombia, it seemed, was coming back from the edge, and the country was ecstatic. Two days after the July 2, 2008, hostage rescue, a Gallup poll of Colombians (those with telephones in the four largest cities, at least) put Uribe’s approval rating at a remarkable 86 percent. Already, the cattle rancher and conservative president had been well regarded among Colombians for battlefield gains against the 45-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) insurgency, a drug-money-fueled leftist force that systematically targets civilians for murder and kidnapping. Uribe oversaw a military buildup that reduced the guerrillas’ size by half and limited its range of operations. He negotiated the demobilization of tens of thousands of pro-government paramilitary militias, reducing — though not eliminating — those groups’ murderous activity.

But what goes up must come down, and Uribe’s luck has certainly done so in recent months. By early May 2009, Gallup put Uribe’s approval rating at 71 – still pretty good, but its lowest in two years. A plurality of Colombians told the pollster that the country was on the "wrong track." There are bigger problems at work here than a normal come-down: Uribe’s spectacular progress in security and economic matters has slowed, and scandals have taken their place in the news.

Economic decline is the most straightforward concern. With a relatively low foreign debt, Colombia is better cushioned than its neighbors, but the global economic crisis has still dealt the country a blow. Demand for its exports, especially manufactured goods to the United States, has plummeted. Prices of commodities, particularly Colombia’s oil, coal, and minerals, have fallen. The country’s urban unemployment rate has returned to double digits after a few years of prosperity, with an additional 30 percent of the workforce underemployed and toiling in the informal sector.

Just as the economy has begun to sputter, the security situation — Uribe’s strongest suit – also seems to have stopped improving. The FARC, under new command since March 2008, appear to be regrouping in rural areas. The group’s founding leader, Manuel Marulanda, died of natural causes in late March 2008, and was replaced by Alfonso Cano, a former professor who joined the FARC in 1968. Since then, with the exception of the July 2008 hostage rescue and a battlefield victory south of Bogotá in March 2008, the military hasn’t dealt any further blows to the guerrillas’ leadership. FARC’s ambushes, attacks, and operations aimed at local government leaders are becoming more frequent.

Murder rates have increased since 2008 in all of Colombia’s major cities, especially Medellín. Here, the it’s not the now mostly-rural FARC that is to blame, but drug gangs. What’s happening is a sort of turf war to gain territory opened up when 15 of the top paramilitary leaders involved in trafficking were extradited to the United States in the first half of May 2008. "New" paramilitary groups, most of them more accurately described as the armed wings of drug-trafficking organizations, are sprouting up and growing quickly to fill the vacuum.

Drug production, meanwhile, continues to be robust, despite a June 2009 U.N. report that detected an 18 percent reduction in coca cultivation between 2007 and 2008. In fact, the "reduction" is a mere return to the levels of 2003 to 2006, after a surprisingly high year in 2007.

Colombia’s editorial pages now speculate that the president’s military-heavy security policies may have reached their limit. This development would be less damaging if not for the scandals that have scraped (though not yet deeply wounded) the president, some of them carrying serious human rights implications. Over a third of the members of Congress Colombia elected in March 2006 are now under investigation, on trial, or behind bars for alleged ties to the paramilitary death squads; most are members of pro-government parties.

Meanwhile, Colombians have been shocked by revelations that members of the armed forces, prodded by a president pushing for results, may have killed well over a thousand innocent civilians in the past few years, passing many off as armed-group members killed in combat. Yet another unpleasant surprise came in February 2009, when the presidential intelligence service was found to have been carrying out wiretaps and surveillance against dozens of prominent Colombians: Supreme Court justices, opposition politicians, journalists, and human rights defenders.

Uribe has been most deeply affected, however, by more venal scandals. Two members of Congress were convicted of bribe-taking in 2008, making it apparent that Uribe was able to pass a 2006 amendment to the constitution, allowing him to be reelected for a second term, only because a handful of undecided legislators were promised big favors. Then, in late 2008, a series of pyramid schemes collapsed, wiping out tens of thousands of Colombians’ savings. Press reports soon revealed that one of the largest such schemes had underwritten much of the mid-2008 petition drive to change the constitution once more — so that Uribe could run again in 2010.

The president has chosen to go on the offensive against many of these accusations, constantly seeking to minimize them as the work of "bad apples," and even to claim publicly that accusers and investigators are doing the work of terrorists. This has done little to reduce the intensity of questioning, especially in certain print media outlets.

All this is happening as Uribe considers whether to try and extend his presidency to 12 years. The president claims he has not yet made up his mind, though time is running out and his political surrogates are intensely lobbying the Congress to pass legislation that would set a constitutional referendum in place for late this year.

Polls indicate that most Colombians would support giving Uribe at least the right to run again — 84 percent in the May Gallup survey. Yet fewer would vote for him, and a second reelection is not assured: Concerns are growing about democratic checks and balances and the prospect of an increasingly personality-driven government led by a man unable to loosen his grip on power.

Prominent members of Colombia’s establishment, including some who served as top ministers during Uribe’s first term, have come out against his reelection. U.S. President Barack Obama, in a public appearance with a visiting Uribe on June 29, noted that "our experience in the United States is that two terms works for us." In Washington — where no Colombia-watcher, right, left or center, has gone on record supporting Uribe’s reelection — it is generally acknowledged that a third-term bid will render nearly impossible the already difficult task of convincing Congress to ratify a controversial free trade accord.

Colombia’s legislature will consider a bill this month that would nail down a date for a referendum on reelection. No matter what the result, the country is in for a very tumultuous political season. One year after the miraculous rescue in Colombia’s jungles, economic woes, security concerns, and scandals are digging in to what was already a hotly contested 2010 election campaign. Down from the high-water mark, Uribe is back in the rapids.

A year ago this week, Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe was on top of the world. Employing a clever ruse, one of the country’s elite army units miraculously (and bloodlessly) rescued 15 hostages who had been held in the jungle for years. The world applauded the operation’s stealth and savvy – and the release of the rebels’ top political hostage, French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, as well as three U.S. defense contractors and 11 soldiers and police.

Colombia, it seemed, was coming back from the edge, and the country was ecstatic. Two days after the July 2, 2008, hostage rescue, a Gallup poll of Colombians (those with telephones in the four largest cities, at least) put Uribe’s approval rating at a remarkable 86 percent. Already, the cattle rancher and conservative president had been well regarded among Colombians for battlefield gains against the 45-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) insurgency, a drug-money-fueled leftist force that systematically targets civilians for murder and kidnapping. Uribe oversaw a military buildup that reduced the guerrillas’ size by half and limited its range of operations. He negotiated the demobilization of tens of thousands of pro-government paramilitary militias, reducing — though not eliminating — those groups’ murderous activity.

But what goes up must come down, and Uribe’s luck has certainly done so in recent months. By early May 2009, Gallup put Uribe’s approval rating at 71 – still pretty good, but its lowest in two years. A plurality of Colombians told the pollster that the country was on the "wrong track." There are bigger problems at work here than a normal come-down: Uribe’s spectacular progress in security and economic matters has slowed, and scandals have taken their place in the news.

Economic decline is the most straightforward concern. With a relatively low foreign debt, Colombia is better cushioned than its neighbors, but the global economic crisis has still dealt the country a blow. Demand for its exports, especially manufactured goods to the United States, has plummeted. Prices of commodities, particularly Colombia’s oil, coal, and minerals, have fallen. The country’s urban unemployment rate has returned to double digits after a few years of prosperity, with an additional 30 percent of the workforce underemployed and toiling in the informal sector.

Just as the economy has begun to sputter, the security situation — Uribe’s strongest suit – also seems to have stopped improving. The FARC, under new command since March 2008, appear to be regrouping in rural areas. The group’s founding leader, Manuel Marulanda, died of natural causes in late March 2008, and was replaced by Alfonso Cano, a former professor who joined the FARC in 1968. Since then, with the exception of the July 2008 hostage rescue and a battlefield victory south of Bogotá in March 2008, the military hasn’t dealt any further blows to the guerrillas’ leadership. FARC’s ambushes, attacks, and operations aimed at local government leaders are becoming more frequent.

Murder rates have increased since 2008 in all of Colombia’s major cities, especially Medellín. Here, the it’s not the now mostly-rural FARC that is to blame, but drug gangs. What’s happening is a sort of turf war to gain territory opened up when 15 of the top paramilitary leaders involved in trafficking were extradited to the United States in the first half of May 2008. "New" paramilitary groups, most of them more accurately described as the armed wings of drug-trafficking organizations, are sprouting up and growing quickly to fill the vacuum.

Drug production, meanwhile, continues to be robust, despite a June 2009 U.N. report that detected an 18 percent reduction in coca cultivation between 2007 and 2008. In fact, the "reduction" is a mere return to the levels of 2003 to 2006, after a surprisingly high year in 2007.

Colombia’s editorial pages now speculate that the president’s military-heavy security policies may have reached their limit. This development would be less damaging if not for the scandals that have scraped (though not yet deeply wounded) the president, some of them carrying serious human rights implications. Over a third of the members of Congress Colombia elected in March 2006 are now under investigation, on trial, or behind bars for alleged ties to the paramilitary death squads; most are members of pro-government parties.

Meanwhile, Colombians have been shocked by revelations that members of the armed forces, prodded by a president pushing for results, may have killed well over a thousand innocent civilians in the past few years, passing many off as armed-group members killed in combat. Yet another unpleasant surprise came in February 2009, when the presidential intelligence service was found to have been carrying out wiretaps and surveillance against dozens of prominent Colombians: Supreme Court justices, opposition politicians, journalists, and human rights defenders.

Uribe has been most deeply affected, however, by more venal scandals. Two members of Congress were convicted of bribe-taking in 2008, making it apparent that Uribe was able to pass a 2006 amendment to the constitution, allowing him to be reelected for a second term, only because a handful of undecided legislators were promised big favors. Then, in late 2008, a series of pyramid schemes collapsed, wiping out tens of thousands of Colombians’ savings. Press reports soon revealed that one of the largest such schemes had underwritten much of the mid-2008 petition drive to change the constitution once more — so that Uribe could run again in 2010.

The president has chosen to go on the offensive against many of these accusations, constantly seeking to minimize them as the work of "bad apples," and even to claim publicly that accusers and investigators are doing the work of terrorists. This has done little to reduce the intensity of questioning, especially in certain print media outlets.

All this is happening as Uribe considers whether to try and extend his presidency to 12 years. The president claims he has not yet made up his mind, though time is running out and his political surrogates are intensely lobbying the Congress to pass legislation that would set a constitutional referendum in place for late this year.

Polls indicate that most Colombians would support giving Uribe at least the right to run again — 84 percent in the May Gallup survey. Yet fewer would vote for him, and a second reelection is not assured: Concerns are growing about democratic checks and balances and the prospect of an increasingly personality-driven government led by a man unable to loosen his grip on power.

Prominent members of Colombia’s establishment, including some who served as top ministers during Uribe’s first term, have come out against his reelection. U.S. President Barack Obama, in a public appearance with a visiting Uribe on June 29, noted that "our experience in the United States is that two terms works for us." In Washington — where no Colombia-watcher, right, left or center, has gone on record supporting Uribe’s reelection — it is generally acknowledged that a third-term bid will render nearly impossible the already difficult task of convincing Congress to ratify a controversial free trade accord.

Colombia’s legislature will consider a bill this month that would nail down a date for a referendum on reelection. No matter what the result, the country is in for a very tumultuous political season. One year after the miraculous rescue in Colombia’s jungles, economic woes, security concerns, and scandals are digging in to what was already a hotly contested 2010 election campaign. Down from the high-water mark, Uribe is back in the rapids.

Adam Isacson is director of the Colombia Program of the Center for International Policy.