POLITICS | 8/6/2010 12:00:00 AM
The Judgment of History
Álvaro Uribe ends his period as a great leader. Only time will tell whether he remains as such.
The big question is whether time will be as kind to Uribe and his government as today’s public opinion. The reviews on a president who delivers his power not always matches with the ones made by History. Previous cases in Colombian History prove this: former presidents Enrique Olaya Herrera or Alfonso López, for example. Probably Uribe prefers Alberto Lleras’ scenario, who left the presidency enjoying a high popularity which remains intact to our days.
Anticipating Uribe’s role in History is, therefore, premature. The main explanation for his popularity is that, for the most, he achieved what he promised during his campaign: hitting the guerrillas hard. Uribe won the 2002 elections because he tuned up with majority’s feelings of frustration towards a failed peace experiment during Andrés Pastrana’s government. The ‘Caguán’ experience had left the feeling that Colombia was a failed State.
The guerrilla’s nowadays situation and the strikes they’ve received for the last eight years prove that Uribe did what he said he would. Back in 2002 it wouldn’t have been easy to expect the bombings at Raúl Reyes’ Ecuadorian guerrilla camp, nor the ‘Jaque’ operation that freed Ingrid Betancourt, or thousands of demobilizations from the guerrilla squads. Political and military cornering of the FARC was almost unimaginable. All this brought back the feeling that Colombia was a viable State once again.
Uribe built a coherent policy that involved all governmental instruments around a same cause: defeating the FARC in all military, political, economic and diplomatic aspects. Uribe spent 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the task, and challenged old concepts: he discarded a ‘dialogue’ with the FARC, for instance. And his government negotiated with the paramilitary forces, which was not traditionally contemplated. The brand 'democratic security' legitimized before international community what basically means ‘total war’. The great achievement of Alvaro Uribe was to convince his countrymen that the theory that neither the guerrillas could defeat the State nor the State could defeat the guerrillas was false. Today, Colombians believe that the latter is possible. The continuity of ‘democratic security’, therefore, became mandatory for all candidates in the last presidential campaign.
Public opinion didn’t have any trouble recognizing Uribe's victories against the FARC. There are concrete results ranging from now being able to travel through Colombia’s roads to the evident reduction of kidnappings, murders and village attacks. These military achievements were possible due to Alvaro Uribe’s style and personality. A president who didn’t rest and who didn’t like to delegate work, and who was always connected with the Army troops. Uribe served almost as a General. He commanded the armed forces, called strategies and monitored personally military activities.
This way of exercising power extended less successfully to other State fields. While being essential for victories in security, it also contributed to create a large stain on Uribe’s government: deinstitutionalization.
The desire to finish the job against the FARC and the enthusiasm produced by military success in his first four years enhanced Uribe's messianic conviction that he alone could command the final phase of war. He then embarked on two reelection attempts, a successful one in 2006 and a failed one in 2010. A period of eight years is a defensible figure that actually exists in several countries. But assuming reelection as a benefit source for those in power is a harmful precedent. One of Colombia’s special features in the Latin American panorama was that institutions were above individuals. The personalized ‘caudillismo’ performed by Uribe broke this tradition and affected political stability greatly. In Colombia, the President has always had a lot of power, but never more than today.
A legislative branch weakening took place in the past eight years. The Congress became attached to the Executive. Imperial presidency and micromanagement were Uribe’s government trademark. This, combined with a Congress beaten by its links with paramilitaries, deepened the unevenness in the weight-and-counterweight institutional system. Uribe implemented a system of direct democracy in order to get connected to citizens. He preferred his ‘communal councils’ instead of dialogue with parties, and appealed to referendums to manage reforms outside the Congress. In 2003 he attempted a political reform against corruption using this method and in 2009 he sought to modify the ban to second re-elections.
Uribe had a large parliamentary majority that would have allowed him to get any project approved. Even so, he had to battle every single vote, and ended up getting his reelection in a harsh, unorthodox manner. Despite this antecedent, or perhaps due to it, he opted for a different formula while seeking his second re-election: turning to the popular vote and pressure a constitutional reform approved, a project that for large sections of the ruling class was an outrage against democracy. Uribe’s quest for a third period was perhaps the biggest mistake of his time in power. The attempt to de-institutionalize the country had never gone this far.
But the Legislative branch was not the only victim of Uribe’s government. So was the Judiciary. A detached reading about the famous train crash probably throws out the conclusion that there were mistakes on both sides. But we must bear in mind that Justice played a definite role as a counterweight to Uribe’s power concentration: the Constitutional Court stopped the second re-election and the Supreme Court processed close-to-government congressmen and officials, especially due to their relations with paramilitary groups. But there had never been an institutional conflict as deep and prolonged as the held by President Uribe and the Supreme Court of Justice. It was a democracy-shaking combat. It even reached excesses like the DAS (Administrative Department of Security) scandal about espionage on judges and the Court's refusal to choose a General Prosecutor before the end of Uribe’s government.
One of the pieces of this episode is going to haunt Uribe for a long time: the role of the DAS, not only in the spying but also in the active weakening of Court judges, political opposition members and the media. Some of these sins are nothing but continuations of long existing practices which had never been subject to public scrutiny. It is a fact that every government have used Intelligence to know the abouts of its opponents. This time it went further, however, and it was becoming a dirty war. This government, after receiving information from their intelligence agencies, designed strategies to discredit those considered enemies.
In terms of institutions, Uribe’s government balance is, in short, negative. To modify the Constitution in order to stay in power, to weaken the Congress and to declare war on the Court are three elements which, together, show a serious diagnosis. It should be added that rules for the exercise of government in Colombia are designed for four-year presidential periods and that, with its extension to an eight-year term, some State organs lose their necessary independence from the Executive branch. Such is the case of the board at the Banco de la República (the central bank), as well as the General Prosecutor’s office and the National Television Commission.
Alvaro Uribe’s presidency shows several paradoxes. The contradiction between the achievements in security and the stains in institutional dynamics is not the only one. Unprecedented popularity despite quite regular results in various fields draws attention. There are no major reforms or monumental infrastructure improvement. The government didn’t take advantage of the economic growth -as Brazil and Chile did- to address issues related with poverty and inequality.
The strings that move Uribe’s support are pulled by different reasons. One of them is that institutional strength concerns a ruling class sector in the long term. For most of the people, results are more important that processes, and his has been a result-obsessed government. Ignoring the Congress and facing the Courts are authority-showing attitudes, and that’s popular. Although History proves that sometimes it’s better listening to minorities, in the short term authority produces the feeling that the country finally has a President who doesn’t kneel before politicians, journalists or bandits.
And even more so given that Uribe is recognized as a leader who wants to serve. Few know Colombia’s geography, structure of government and the real country as much as him. He the length of the roads or how’s the hospital system's budget deficit in every department. His motto of “work, work and work” is not fictional. Gray hair and wrinkles that these eight years left on his face are just a sign of this kind of dedication, commitment and hard work. His charisma made Colombians feel a close and committed leader helping them. Uribe gave the impression that he felt his countrymen’s pain as if it was his own. They felt they had a father who understood them, which worked because Uribe's attitude wasn’t strategic or artificial, but genuine and real. Many times in the ‘communal councils’ Uribe was more a spokesman of the common people than a defender of the government's work. He acted as an intermediary between community leaders and executive officials, and there were times when he adopted a critical tone, almost opposition-like.
Many epithets and parallels have been used to qualify Uribe. A populist ‘caudillo’? the tough commander who cornered the FARC? the president who was more concerned about results that about human rights? While some called him an autocrat who has neglected and harmed institutions, others have seen him as the savior of democracy. No one knows which of these versions will survive the passing of time.
As the story draws its conclusions, fair is to say that Alvaro Uribe is a man with a great personality who established a high standard for successors, mainly in three fields: security, work capacity and State knowledge. Although saying that he parted Colombia’s History in two would be a cliché, there’s no doubt that such is the case in issues related with internal conflict. He ended the myth on FARC’s invincibility, and that is a huge accomplishment. Obviously, not everything is good. Many of the country’s major issues -poverty, unemployment and inequality- still persist. Groundwork has been done, however, for the economic boom that is said to come in this decade. That’s what Juan Manuel Santos inherits.