Debate starts on Uribe’s legacy

Led Colombia to stability, but at what cost?

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Those complexities came into play when a free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia became an issue during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. As candidates, Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joseph R. Biden Jr. all opposed the pact, citing the violence against labor in particular, even though Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton supported a similar deal with Colombia’s southern neighbor Peru.

The Obama administration, however, sought to preserve the Bush administration’s close working relationship with the Colombian leader even as it pursued improved relations with Mr. Chavez, Mr. Uribe’s neighbor and nemesis.

When Mr. Uribe first visited Mr. Obama as president in June 2009, it was unclear how much longer he would remain in power. A month earlier, the Colombian Congress had given the go-ahead to a national referendum that would have let voters lift the two-term presidential limit — itself an extension of the one-term restriction that had prevailed before Mr. Uribe abolished it.

But the nation’s highest court declared the referendum unconstitutional in February, paving the way for Mr. Santos — Mr. Uribe’s former defense minister — to handily win the presidency in June on a platform of continuity.

While it is likely that Colombians would have re-elected Mr. Uribe given the chance, even his most glowing admirers say they were relieved that the Constitutional Court ruled as it did.

“You can’t make exceptions and carve-outs for people,” Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said. “That’s the law. You shouldn’t change it.”

She hastened to contrast Mr. Uribe, who grudgingly accepted the court’s verdict, with Latin American strongmen, like Mr. Chavez, who have muscled through similar changes.

“My personal opinion is that transitions are healthy,” said Roger Noriega, who served as Mr. Bush’s assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs from 2003 to 2006. “For the institutions of democracy to be strengthened, they have to work for the people, not for a single leader.”

“Part of Uribe’s legacy,” he added, “is that his hand-picked man, President Santos, will be at the helm as Colombians strive to consolidate economic, political and security gains.”

For Colombia, said Mr. Shifter, “those gains outweigh everything else.”

“I wrote an article for Foreign Affairs in 1999 called ‘Colombia on the Brink,’” he said. “Nobody’s writing articles today about Colombia on the brink. They’re writing articles on the importance of reform, the rule of law, separation of powers, and trying to get things back into balance under the Santos government.

“But the country itself is not under siege as it was a decade ago. And Uribe deserves credit for that.”

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About the Author

Ben Birnbaum

Ben Birnbaum is a reporter covering foreign affairs for The Washington Times. Prior to joining The Times, Birnbaum worked as a reporter-researcher at the New Republic. A Boston-area native, he graduated magna cum laude from Cornell University with a degree in government and psychology. He won multiple collegiate journalism awards for his articles and columns in the Cornell Daily Sun.

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