- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 22, 2010

It has been barely two weeks since former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe handed the reins to Juan Manuel Santos, but with Mr. Uribe already taking on new roles — as vice chairman of a U.N. panel and a soon-to-be Georgetown professor — the debate over his legacy has begun.

To his admirers, Mr. Uribe is nothing less than Colombia’s savior - a tireless statesman who almost single-handedly brought to its knees the leftist insurgency that had bedeviled the country since the 1960s.

“When you look at Colombia, you see a nation transformed because of the leadership of one man,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“President Uribe turned the impossible into a present reality. Not too long ago, people looked at Colombia as a country on the verge of becoming a failed state,” she said. “And it’s now a thriving democracy and one of the strongest allies of the United States.”

To his critics, Mr. Uribe is a more complicated figure, one who treated his military advances against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as a license to ignore human rights abuses and checks on his power.

“Uribe succeeded in weakening the FARC but also sought to weaken the country’s democratic institutions,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The security situation improved, but the rule of law did not.”

“That’s the thing about Uribe,” said Jake Dizard, a Colombia analyst at Freedom House. “You’re bound to get a multiplicity of views — even talking to one person.”

Named vice chairman of the U.N. panel looking into Israel’s deadly flotilla raid shortly before he left office, Mr. Uribe, 58, begins a stint this fall as a professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

“It is a great honor to participate in this prestigious Georgetown University program, sharing my experience with younger generations,” Mr. Uribe said. “My greatest wish and happiness is to contribute in the continuous emergence of future leaders.”

To most Colombians, the verdict on Mr. Uribe’s leadership is overwhelmingly positive. After unexpectedly sweeping to power in 2002, he was re-elected four years later with 62 percent of the vote — a modern record. By most accounts, he left office Aug. 7 with approval ratings topping 70 percent.

Mr. Uribe’s domestic popularity is no mystery. Even his critics concede that his signature campaign promise — a country not held hostage to FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) — has largely been fulfilled.

While the guerrillas have not surrendered, their combined ranks have been reduced from more than 20,000 in 2002 to roughly 10,000 today, according to most estimates. Though the FARC continues to threaten much of the countryside, it no longer patrols main roads or controls the Switzerland-sized area that Mr. Uribe’s predecessor ceded to it during Colombia’s short-lived peace process.

The improving security situation has jump-started the Colombian economy. During Mr. Uribe’s eight years in office, gross domestic product grew at an annual average rate of 4.3 percent — more that double the clip of the previous eight years — while foreign direct investment quintupled.

Colombia in 2010 is, by all accounts, a far cry from the regional basket case it was in the 1990s.

“In the big cities, Colombians felt like they could be kidnapped or robbed or attacked,” said former U.S. ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette, who survived eight plots against his life during his tenure from 1994 to 1997. “Life was dreary and anxious unless you had an awful lot of money for bodyguards, and few Colombians had that kind of money.

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