Three days before Christmas, Luis Francisco Cuellar, governor of the Colombian province of Caqueta, was found dead, his throat slashed. He had been abducted the day before from home by Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) guerillas, an insurgent group in Colombia notorious for drug trafficking and organized crime.
Gov. Cuellar’s murder served as a gruesome wake-up call across Colombia that the almost half-century battle with the rebels, known by their Spanish acronym FARC, was far from over. “We thought all of that was behind us” a Colombian housekeeper was quoted as saying. The atrocity was perhaps the most shocking since Alvaro Uribe had been sworn in as president in 2002.
The governor’s murder and security overtones also served to direct attention to Colombia’s electoral calendar and the 2010 presidential election. The election, set for May, has drawn international attention because it would be President Uribe’s third term, a term that as of today is not permitted by the Colombian Constitution.
Indeed, December’s tragic news from Colombia paralleled another news narrative involving the country that had been gaining steam for several months—the decision by the world’s editorial writers that Alvaro Uribe could do his country no better service than standing down from a possible third term.
The narrative has several starting points, but the consensus is that President Uribe’s narcissistic desire to hold on to power would be detrimental to the strides made on his watch and endanger the long-term efficacy of Colombia’s institutions.
Regrettably, most of the pieces have also drawn a comparison to Uribe’s Andean neighbor, Hugo Chavez who has made rewriting his nation’s electoral laws a yearly ritual. And the editorial writers have emphatically made the point that they are against Chavez’s chicanery and thus in an apparent flight of fairness must also weigh in against Uribe’s effort to alter electoral laws.
We have only to return to the housekeeper’s sentiments to distinguish between the Uribe and Chavez cases. Indeed, the quote from the housekeeper is very important because it conveys the national mood under President Uribe. During his presidency, Colombia emerged from the dark shadows cast for so long by the FARC and other rebels, shadows that had stunted economic development, investment and, most importantly, security for the average Colombian. Suffice to say, with power outages, water rationing, bank collapses, high inflation and alarming murder rates, there is no such national mood under President Chavez in Venezuela.
President Uribe’s political mettle was forged by the fire of almost 50 years of civil qar in Colombia and insecurity that a succession of politicians could not handle. The country’s security struggles are personal and have directly affected his own family; Uribe’s father was murdered by the FARC in 1983.
After quickly moving up from mayor of Medellin, the country’s second largest city, to governor of Antioquia (his home state), Uribe went to Harvard and Oxford in an effort to polish his technocrat skill set. After Oxford, he returned to Colombia to run for president with a rather singular platform focused on security. It has been his calling card and true strength ever since.
Critics call Uribe’s focus on security obsessive and point to related scandals. But the country has made huge strides and the economy has boomed. The space provided by security gains has encouraged entrepreneurs to return home and enhanced real estate values, while state enterprises have been opened to private capital and foreign investment has poured in. In 2007, BusinessWeek named Colombia its emerging market of the year and described it as an improbable journey from crime capital to investment hot spot.
Colombia’s great leap forward economically and security-wise are reflected in Alvaro Uribe’s approval numbers. He has consistently maintained a national approval rating well over 60 percent and even hit the mid-80’s in 2008 after a decisive strike against the FARC. The numbers also explain why Uribe feels buoyed to let the process that might grant him a third term unfold. Simply put, he has his countrymen’s support.
But the security issue might be most insightful as to why Alvaro Uribe rewrote the Colombian Constitution in 2006 to run for a second term and is standing by now as followers labor to bring about a referendum that would permit him a third term. Like the housekeeper, he dreads a return to the chaos that engulfed the country for years and cost many lives, sacrificed development, and made Colombia an international pariah.
Populations the world over have expressed an increasingly limited amount of patience for their leaders; Barack Obama’s rather precipitous approval ratings decline being but the latest example. It is worth reiterating that after almost eight years, this is not the case in Colombia as evidenced by President Uribe’s approval numbers. Instead, it is the international conventional wisdom makers and global editorial writers who have decided that two terms is enough for Uribe in Colombia. Colombian public be damned.
The most prudent path is for those of us outside Colombia to take a deep breath and allow President Uribe and citizens of Colombia the room they need to make their critical national decision.
And those editorials decrying Alvaro Uribe’s narcissism and bloviating on his turn as Caudillo yet to be published? Please do Colombia and us all a favor and hold them.
Jeremy Martin is a frequent commentator and writer on Latin American and energy issues. Working at the Institute of the Americas at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), he spends his time delving into the geopolitics of energy and closely following energy industry trends and policy issues across the Americas. He can be found on Twitter at @jermartinioa and contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.