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Debate starts on Uribe’s legacy
Led Colombia to stability, but at what cost?
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.
“So the legacy of Uribe, I think, is huge. He restored Colombians’ confidence in their own country. He showed them that if the government put its mind to it, it could — with assistance from the United States — beat back the guerrillas.”
But some say it would be a mistake to attribute the transformation to Mr. Uribe’s leadership rather than to a host of other factors, such as the $7.3 billion in primarily military aid that Colombia has received from Washington over the past decade.
“When you double the military size and you triple the defense budget, you’re bound to get security improvements,” said Adam Isacson, senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America. “But I do think that a different president who was more respectful of the rule of law and more respectful of the opposition could have done the same — or better.”
Mr. Isacson and others noted that Mr. Uribe, while beloved by most Colombians, made his fair share of enemies — at home and abroad.
He locked horns with the judiciary and steamrolled his legislative opposition, earning accusations that he did not respect the checks and balances inherent in a true democracy.
Other Latin American leaders, particularly Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, viewed Mr. Uribe as an American lackey and, like his White House ally George W. Bush, a trigger-happy president whose campaign against the guerrillas knew no bounds — literally, in the case of Colombia’s 2008 airstrikes on a FARC base in Ecuador.
Human rights groups, meanwhile, took aim at various excesses that came to define Mr. Uribe in their eyes.
“Under his watch,” said Human Rights Watch’s Mr. Vivanco, “hundreds of poor youths were murdered by the military, hundreds of trade unionists were murdered by paramilitaries, and journalists and judges who sought accountability for such abuses were subject to severe harassment, including by the president and his intelligence service.”
Mr. Vivanco was referring to three prominent blemishes on the Uribe record that Colombian authorities are still investigating:
• The hundreds of “false positives,” civilians who where were shot by the country’s armed forces and dressed up in rebel uniforms to inflate body counts.
• The Watergate-like wiretapping cases that targeted Mr. Uribe’s opponents in government and the media.
• The widespread murders of trade unionists at the hands of right-wing paramilitary forces sympathetic to Mr. Uribe.
A fourth scandal, dubbed “parapolitics” in reference to politicians with illegal ties to paramilitary groups, has landed more than a dozen Uribe allies in prison.
Inter-American Dialogue (IAD) President Michael Shifter, who sits on Human Rights Watch’s Americas advisory committee, said that while the scandals tarnish the former president’s legacy, he thinks human rights groups have at times suffered from tunnel vision with regard to Mr. Uribe, whom he called “a net plus” for Colombia.
“The problem with the criticism is not that it’s not accurate or carefully done,” Mr. Shifter said. “It’s just that it’s a partial view of a more complex situation.”
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.”
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
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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