SEMANA/Cover Story | 12/9/2008 12:00:00 AM
Colombian Presidential candidate reveals his cards
The former senator and head of the Cambio Radical party, German Vargas Lleras, talks about his candidacy and speaks his mind against the government, the referendum, the left and his rivals.
In his tour he has visited the provinces of Santander, Meta, Valle del Cauca, Boyacá, Cauca, Tolima and Huila. He will end the year in Antioquia and begin 2009 in Nariño. In each province he goes to city council meetings, assemblies, goes to the markets and is invited to the homes of business and political leaders. He meets with mayors, governors, police commanders and commanders of Army brigades and battalions. In the middle of this real country outlook that you can feel in the regions, he is the first Uribista candidate who, without waiting any longer for the decision of President Uribe, has decided to set off on his own path.
That is how he designed the first step of his “Transition Colombia,” his new concept that he uses to present to the public his efforts for the presidency of Colombia. “It is not about making a ‘Cambio Radical,’ which means radical change and is the name of his party, because we believe in what this government has done. It is about new ideas and a different style,” he says while he tries to clear up that he is still not a candidate. But he acts like one and his answers in this extensive interview that he gave SEMANA in Neiva confirm that.
SEMANA: You have said that if President Álvaro Uribe were a candidate, you would not be one. But you aren’t waiting any longer and are already in campaign.
Germán Vargas Lleras: What I said is that it would be more difficult to face him. Today I have the feeling that the president will not insist in being a candidate. First you have to change the Constitution, and the referendum formalities give me doubts. Suppose that the House of Representatives discusses it this year, the Senate will debate it in March and they approve it in April. The review by the Constitutional Court will delay it at least two months, and in June will submit its decision. The registrar (the official in charge of elections) says that it will take no less than four months to do it, meaning that in October or November of next year we will have the referendum. How will Colombian politics be then and what will be the situation of the government coalition parties?
SEMANA: What do you think that situation will be?
G.V.L.: At that time, the U party, the Conservatives and we will be in full campaign and it isn’t clear that once that whole process happens the president will submit himself to a referendum on his government that has to obtain seven and half million votes. These are all complex circumstances and it could be avoided if his government, and especially Mr. Uribe, clarifies things.
SEMANA: And why hasn’t he?
G.V.L.: I do not understand why the president, who is straightforward in all subjects, hasn’t been so in this case. The only argument that I have heard is to maintain the governability and the strength of the government coalition. I do not agree with this argument, because the debate on the referendum in Congress has delayed the passage of many government initiatives. It has polarized the political forces and it is affecting the coalition. Without this ambiguity, none of this would have happened.
SEMANA: And it won’t be resolved soon?
I don’t believe that the decision can be put off much later than March. First, because the inabilities of the members of the government are emerging. It would be only fair for the president to clarify if he is going to insist on a third term or not. Second, I don’t think that they will permit the approval of a law that after being approved by Congress it will become obligatory and will force the country and the Registraduria (the electoral registrar’s office) to take on this expense, if he truly isn’t interested.
SEMANA: Do you think that the government will try via another path, through legislation to change the Constitution, for example?
G.V.L.: This confusion is generated by ambiguous messages from the government. First he said that he wasn’t interested. Then only if there were a‘catastrophe.’ And then what would be encouraged is coalition unity and rules that would guarantee that unity. Further on he told congresspeople to forget the referendum and pursue other reforms, but at the same time government officials, and the very secretary of the U Party (one of the government coalition parties) forced Congress to consider the initiative. What confusion! What confusion!
SEMANA: Uribe has gotten tangled up by his own desire?
G.V.L.: You know that I do not believe that President Uribe would force that situation. I instead believe that the error was made by those who have their own agenda at the presidential palace and in Colombian politics to insist on that point.
SEMANA: And do you like the idea of presidential re-election in 2014?
G.V.L.: That sounds quite strange. But the president also said that he is interested in 2014. Afterwards he said that he thought it would be interesting to be the minister of defense for the next government. After that another advisor said that he was interested in being the mayor of a town.
SEMANA: During your tour have you sensed that the people still want re-election?
G.V.L.: It is clear that there are ‘furibistas’ sectors (furious Uribe supporters). But in every region the circumstances are different. In Meta, re-election is imperative because it is a department that is afflicted by violence, not like in Bogotá.
SEMANA: Was it good for you to have left the country?
G.V.L.: It was to accept an invitation to study, but also to have some time to reflect. It was an opportunity to finish my time in Congress.
SEMANA: Many people have said that you didn’t leave in order to not have to confront current issues like that of the congresspeople of Cambio Radical who have been involved in the para-politics scandal.
G.V.L.: My absence was very brief. There was never a good time to leave the country. It was the first time that I had accepted an invitation, but it wasn’t the first invitation that I had received. I would never have found the right moment, but when in Colombia one also believes that in Colombia a lot of things happen, and from abroad one notes that that isn’t the case. Nothing is so pressing.
SEMANA: Do you talk on a regular basis with César Gaviria (the former president and head of the Liberal Party)?
G.V.L.: No. Only once and I met with all of the political party heads even with Juan Manuel Santos (the minister of defense and one of Vargas Lleras’ main rivals.)
SEMANA: And that ‘even with Juan Manuel’ comment, does that mean that that was unthinkable?
G.V.L.: No, no. It’s because you think that we live like dogs and cats and that isn’t true. We wanted to send a message that an understanding among government coalition members was possible, and it seems that that wasn’t well received at the presidential palace.
G.V.L.: I don’t know, because in that meeting we wanted to send a constructive message. The president had signaled that it would give him a great deal of peace of mind to see that the members of his coalition were achieving agreements that would guarantee unity. And as I am interested in that process, I wanted the meeting with Santos to be an example that it is possible to preserve the coalition and define the rules of the game. It is impossible to advance any further. How could we go further when everything depends on the president’s decision?
SEMANA: Juan Manuel Santos for the U Party, Noemi (Sanin) for the Conservatives and German Vargas for Cambio Radical. Would you agree to such a primary election contest?
G.V.L.: Interesting. Let them define the rules of the game and guarantee the neutrality of the process.
SEMANA: And what time frame do you see for that?
G.V.L.: That is for the president to decide. If they did that soon, he would have all the authority to lead it. If it is delayed, he will lose control of that primary election race. But there has to be neutrality, nobody is going to participate in a rigged election.
SEMANA: Rigged? By the U Party, for example?
G.V.L.: By the U, or by a biased government in a debate between the members of the same coalition - a circumstance that I have experienced in the past. For Cambio Radical the elections of 2006 weren’t easy in a coalition in conditions of inequality, supporting Uribe and at the same time competing against an organization of the same president.
SEMANA: And how do you see Noemi?
G.V.L.: With the rules of the game that political reform imposed, every candidate needs a party. Noemi has always avoided working in her party. At the same time, Conservative Party leaders look at her with mistrust. Despite that, they both mutually need each other.
SEMANA: Let’s go back to your chat with Gaviria. Is there a chance to do something with the Liberal Party?
G.V.L.: Former President César Gaviria said that he was interested in advancing an inter-party election in which not only we would participate but also other people. He mentioned Lucho (former mayor of Bogotá), Fajardo (former mayor of Medellin) and mainstream Liberal candidates. I sensed in Gaviria the expectation of achieving unity in the Liberal Party. That would involve the U Party and Juan Manuel Santos. I told him that we were a part of the government coalition and would be a part of the government coalition and that that we couldn’t participate at this time. There was no commitment.
SEMANA: Are you interested in the Liberal Party?
G.V.L.: All of us feel liberal; we have never stopped being liberal. All the campaigns turn to the Liberal base. That is also what is happening to the U Party. We separated ourselves from the Liberal Party in 2002 because we made the decision to stand with Uribe.
SEMANA: How do you see the Polo (Democrático Alternativo) party?
G.V.L.: Very fragile. It still is a party from Bogotá with some support in Narino. It will be difficult for it to be an alternative power in 2010.
SEMANA: Do you think it is healthy that the left strengthens?
G.V.L.: Sure. They should organize and participate in the electoral debate and demonstrate that they are capable when they assume responsibilities in public administration. Look what is happening in Bogotá.
SEMANA: How do you see the government of Samuel Moreno (the Polo party mayor of Bogotá).
G.V.L.: What is happening in Bogotá is terrible. We are going backwards at gigantic steps. I think that the government of Lucho was also a failure. We would be better off in Bogotá if (Enrique) Peñalosa were mayor.
SEMANA: Luis Guillermo Giraldo (the main promoter of the presidential re-election referendum) said that he doesn’t see much future in your campaign…
G.V.L.: Giraldo didn’t see the mistake in the referendum question, nor did Oscar Iván (Zuluaga, the minister of finance) the pyramid scheme scandal, nor Juan Manuel the false positives scandal. They all need an ophthalmologist.
SEMANA: About the false positives scandal, what is your sense about the armed forces?
G.V.L.: I have sensed some demoralization with regards to false positives. Internationally it has been devastating, and in the interior of the armed forces, very serious. Considering the number of officials and sub-officials, the government should have informed why they are sacking each one. There is a sense that all of them are murderers and that is not true. Sectors from the military forces are resentful. I am referring to those who have complied diligently with the government’s objectives and that they didn’t have anything to do with the scandal, but who end up tainted in the cloak of doubt that today falls on the whole institution.
SEMANA: Do you think that it is clear who has the political responsibility for this scandal?
G.V.L.: I know where you are going with that question. Allow me to withhold my opinion on this subject.
SEMANA: You are very critical with the government. Where else do you see failures?
G.V.L.: We are very far behind in infrastructure. There is no explanation why 80 percent of the roads in a department like Santander are unpaved. It is clear that Plan 2500, a government road construction program, has failed. Very few contracts have been implemented like they were planned. The government has recognized that. It didn’t have the impact that was thought.
SEMANA: Did the government miscalculate?
G.V.L.: We missed a chance to finance a part of those projects when international credit was liquid. Today it isn’t. We should have made some advances when foreign investment was available, but with the global credit crunch it is going to be more difficult for us to finance these projects.
SEMANA: Did the triumph of Barack Obama in the United States move you like it did so many?
G.V.L.: No, because I pondered that from the lens of a Colombian, and during the whole Obama campaign we didn’t hear anything but worrisome expressions regarding Colombia. Not only about the FTA, but also the military component of Plan Colombia and laboral issues that aren’t true. We made the unforgivable error of meddling in United States politics and that has a cost. And we committed the second error of having an opportunistic and attitude that also worried the Republicans.
SEMANA: Uribe marked a change of traditional political style. You look like a traditional politician. Will you change your style?
G.V.L.: I have never changed the way I do politics. What I do is make politics with political leaders. I do not believe that one can distance themselves from them. It would be very disadvantageous. Colombia has a democratic system that is expressed in city councils, department assemblies and in the Congress. One can be in disagreement with people, but not with the system. I do not plan on, neither will I make, a campaign that is distanced from the democratic culture of this country.
SEMANA: Does it make you uncomfortable being seen as Uribe’s heir?
G.V.L.: No, not really. The policy of democratic security must have continuity and something that few would say is that there is an option other than continuing to combat the guerrillas. Next year the full effects of Colombia’s commitments to the International Criminal Court will be felt. The entire FARC leadership has committed atrocious acts and crimes against humanity. And it will no longer be possible to conduct negotiations that involve pardons or amnesty.
SEMANA: So, a negotiation is impossible?
G.V.L.: Inexorably, the heads of the FARC will have to serve3 prison terms in the minimum standards of the justice and peace law. You tell me, when in this country will they accept these conditions in order to demobilize themselves? I am afraid the answer is never. In the next electoral debate, those who support a peace process won’t be lacking. They will be fooling the Colombian people because none of that will be possible in the future.
SEMANA: If tomorrow Alfonso Cano (the head of the FARC) turns over the hostages and says, ‘here they are and let’s sit down,’ is there something that the government can tell them?
G.V.L.: That isn’t feasible. They lost their chance. There is no way to have a successful peace process and that is what they don’t understand.
SEMANA: Fight them until the end?
G.V.L.: Fight them until the end.
SEMANA: How would you free the hostages then?
G.V.L.: The FARC should understand that they have lost that battle. Their initial demands were unacceptable and always were. They should free all the hostages.
SEMANA: During your recent visit to Huila, apparently they were going to make an attempt on your life. That incident still isn’t clear. Have we returned to the time when you were a target of the FARC?
G.V.L.: It has been a very interesting week in Huila. I sense that despite the successes that have been achieved, it is the department that has had the greatest difficulty in regaining calm. They have overcome kidnapping, but not extortion. People are still intimidated.
SEMANA: Is it true about the attempt on your life? The Army said no.
G.V.L.: Early in the morning I was in the town of Pitalito, afterwards I went to Garzón and the only person with a meeting in Algeciras at 3 p.m. was me. My arrival had been announced. The Ministry of Defense, logically, minimizes the incident. But I do not know of anyone else who was going to visit that town on that day.
SEMANA: That means that the FARC isn’t going to stop pursuing you.
G.V.L.: Last night I had dinner with Orlando Beltrán, the former congressman who had been kidnapped for seven years. He told me about his meeting with ‘Jojoy’ to warn me that the FARC commander had expressed that his big error was in allowing Uribe to live to become president and that they weren’t going to let that happen again. In my case, beyond that anecdote, we hope that this campaign will not be marked by violence.