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Life After Uribe

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President Uribe's decision to run or not for re-election will affect the country’s security, democratic credentials and economic health.

BY ANDRES OTERO

In Colombia these days, the biggest betting game has nothing to do with futbol.  Instead, it’s politics that has everyone in a betting mood.  Across the country people of every political persuasion are speculating whether popular Colombian President Alvaro Uribe will run for a third four-year term of office when elections are held May 2010.

Recent months have seen a flurry of political maneuvering to amend the constitution to allow a third consecutive presidential term.  The legal battle is far from over. The focus now is on the Constitutional Court, which must decide whether to allow a referendum to amend the carta magna or declare the referendum unconstitutional, thereby ending Uribe’s re-re-election aspirations. 

ECONOMIC STRENGTH

However, what matters most is not the ability of a popular president, who has consistently scored 70 percent and higher in public approval ratings, to succeed for the second time in amending the constitution, but what it would mean to Colombia if Uribe gets his way. There is much more at stake than a politician’s political career.  Hanging in the balance, on the one hand, is the country’s security and, on the other, the credibility of its democratic institutions and, along with them, the long-term strength of its economy.

There is no question that, in his seven years in office, Uribe has orchestrated a dramatic turnaround in Colombia.  When he took office in 2002, Colombia was in the verge of becoming a failed state.  The country was at the mercy of violent drug cartels. Lawlessness reined. Drug gangs blew up commercial airplanes, destroyed government buildings with car bombs, bribed judges, assassinated policemen, and kidnapped journalists and politicians.  Colombia’s image abroad was defined by narco-terrorism, money laundering and corruption. Drug money funded political campaigns. In 1994, even the presidential race was tainted by narco-dollars.

Marxist guerrilla groups, primarily the FARC and ELN, contributed to the carnage and the chaos. They mounted terrorist attacks, carried out kidnappings and extortions, and terrorized the civilian population.  Shell-shocked, the Colombian government lacked any kind of effective authority over 50 percent of country.  Colombians were prisoners within their own land.  Meanwhile, foreign investors stayed away from Colombia, then considered the world’s most dangerous country.

TURNED THE PAGE

It took only four years for President Uribe to change that narrative. With the help of U.S. financial and military assistance through Plan Colombia, the Colombian armed forces succeeded in weakening the FARC and putting them on the defensive.  An international terrorist organization which started as a Marxist guerrilla group back in the 1960s, the FARC over the years had turned into a violent drug trafficking organization with nearly 12,000 active combatants. Now on the run during Uribe’s first term, they were forced to take shelter in neighboring countries, Venezuela and Ecuador. 

Uribe’s successes against the FARC and the drug cartels they protected dramatically changed the perception of a country that not so long ago was blacklisted by the international community. Today, Colombia is seen as a country that has turned the page, a safe place to live and do business. This dramatic turn of events allowed Uribe to amend the constitution in 2005, allowing for a second consecutive presidential term, and to win his first re-election in 2006, by a landslide. 

However impressive Uribe’s successes, Colombians know that the job is far from complete. Despite the tremendous efforts to defeat the guerrillas and the drug cartels, they remain a serious threat to the country.  Many of these criminals are looking forward to the end of Uribe’s presidency as an opportunity to rebuild their criminal ventures once the military offensive subsides. 

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, meanwhile, sees Uribe’s exit as an opportunity to influence an election and add one more country to his socialist club. Other countries in the region see it as an opportunity to develop a South American agenda without the interference of the United States, so tightly embedded in Colombian policy-making and leadership under Uribe.

A MEANS TO AN END

For Colombians, on the other hand, Uribe is a means to an end.  As long as the end is not fully achieved, he should remain in office. The public is clamoring for him to run again, in spite of all the obvious risks that a second constitutional amendment would entail. Colombia is Latin America’s oldest democracy in Latin America.  By running for a third term, Uribe would undermine Colombia’s democratic institutions and the country’s image around the world.  

If Uribe decides to run again, all his efforts to build what he likes to call “democratic security and investor confidence” could be demolished overnight.  Perhaps more importantly, the criticism of anti-democratic behavior often hurled at Chavez in Venezuela, would immediately be targeted at Uribe the moment he raises his hand for third term. International analysts and local business leaders almost unanimously agree that a third term would not be good for the country. 

Uribe’s decision will not be easy.  He has to decide what is best for his country and, at the same time, take into consideration the will of the Colombian people, who appear to be ready to jeopardize the country’s democratic institutions in order to maintain a strong leader.  Uribe must also think about his own legacy as one of the Colombia’s greatest political leaders.

SHREWD POLITICIAN

Ever the shrewd politician, Uribe has yet to tip his hand.  He has made no indication that he is looking beyond his own self-interest and his ranks of supporters, or that he understands that strong and reliable institutions, as well as democratic checks and balances, are what allowed Colombia not to surrender to the drug cartels in the first place.  But Uribe is an intelligent man, who recognizes that Colombia, a country of 44 million habitants with sophisticated business and political leaders, can survive without him.

If Uribe leaves office next year, his successors will no doubt continue to seek his guidance in times of trouble. They will also be able to point to Uribe’s decision as the clearest evidence that Latin America countries do not need caudillos or messiahs, that democracy – despite its deficiencies – and solid institutions are the best option for guaranteeing democratic security and investor confidence.  

If I were a betting man, I’d place my money on Colombian democracy. 

Andres Otero is Managing Director of Business Intelligence and Investigations, and heads Kroll’s Miami operations. This article is republished with permission from Kroll Tendencias, the company’s monthly newsletter. 
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