Colombia election ends reign of 'savior' Álvaro Uribe

Álvaro Uribe brought security to a nation that once inspired Hollywood drug-trafficking film 'Clear and Present Danger.' But his scandals could sink would-be successor Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia's May 30 presidential vote.

By , Staff writer

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    Colombia President Álvaro Uribe greeted crowds during a police academy ceremony in early May. After the president’s bid for a third term was struck down by Colombian courts, attention turned to his former defense minister.
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A few months prior to Colombia's May 30 presidential vote, there was a distinct possibility that President Álvaro Uribe – the no-nonsense leader synonymous with fighting drug traffickers and terrorism – would be at his country's helm for another four years.

When Colombian courts struck down his bid for a third term, it still seemed that his free-market, tough-on-guerrillas policies would live robustly on with his former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, who was well ahead in polls.

But suddenly, the race is neck and neck. Antanas Mockus, a mathematician and former mayor of Bogotá, has surged in the polls (see related article). And whoever wins could shape the perceptions of the legacy of Mr. Uribe, who is widely credited with wresting control from leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries and giving many Colombians the sense of "normalcy" that they savor today.

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Uribe remains wildly popular, with 70 percent approval ratings. And in some ways, the surge of Mr. Mockus shows Uribe's success in the area most important to voters: democratic security. No matter who wins, the next Colombian president is likely to chart the same course when it comes to drug traffickers, rebels, and paramilitaries.

"He achieved a consensus on public opinion about security as a vital element in society," says Rafael Nieto, a political analyst who served with Uribe as vice minister of justice. "Today there is no one not willing to continue his policies."

But many Colombians say they are fatigued with Uribe's administration, particularly by the political and human rights scandals that have dogged his presidency. In that sense, Santos seems to be more of the same. In Mockus, they say, they expect more transparency and rule of law. A Mockus victory, however, could highlight the flaws in Uribe's time in office, undermining the image of a man who, until recently, was seen by many as the only viable way forward for the country.

Uribe's crime-fighting legacy

Colombia was a very different place when Uribe, a lawyer and former governor of Antioquia, first won the presidency in 2002.

Amid mortar attacks in the center of Bogotá, Uribe began his term and vowed he would never negotiate with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), after peace talks with the previous government collapsed.

While guerrillas still pose a threat, and criminal violence is way up in some urban centers such as Medellín, overall kidnappings are down by nearly 90 percent. A place that once starred in Hollywood films about jungle violence (such as "Proof of Life," and "Clear and Present Danger") is now touted as a hot spot on the Latin America tourism circuit.

A staunch ally of former President George W. Bush, Uribe benefited widely from the $6 billion, US-funded Plan Colombia, designed to reduce the drug trade. Uribe expanded state presence throughout the country, diminishing the sway of leftist guerrillas and persuading paramilitaries to demobilize.

For many Colombians, that has translated into a freedom they have not known for decades. Driver Jaime Quintin says that he used to think twice before heading to La Calera, a small town in the mountains above Bogotá that is lined with restaurants and bars. A few low-level kidnappings and the proximity of the FARC scared off capital city residents like himself.

On a recent day, he drives to La Calera without pause, past police checkpoints and restaurants packed with well-heeled Colombians seeking a day in the "countryside." Just a few months back he drove – through the night no less – to Medellín, a route that was once completely off limits. "This is thanks to Uribe," he says.

Scandal fails to dent popularity

But on Bogatá's southern edge, in the municipality of Soacha, Uribe's legacy is much darker. Here some parents lost sons in the "false-positives" scandal, the extrajudicial killings of civilians who were identified as guerrillas.

Carmenza Gomez's son was among the first cases to come to light, in September 2008, and she continues to fight for justice today. "Everyone admires Uribe for what he has done for security," says Ms. Gomez. "Nobody talks about the impunity."

The false-positives scandal, which human rights groups say could have involved up to 2,000 victims, is perhaps the most macabre but is not an isolated one. The state's intelligence agency was accused of placing illegal wiretaps and spying on political opponents. Recently Uribe's cousin was arrested for ties to the paramilitaries.

Such criticism would cause a dip in the ratings of most sitting presidents. But Alejandro Santos, the director of Semana news magazine, calls it the "teflon effect" when it comes to Uribe. He attributes it largely to Uribe's connection with the population, especially in rural areas where the state had long been absent. Uribe spends weekends traveling across the country, giving ordinary Colombians the sense that he cares about them, not just the elite.

'People see him as a savior'

Each time Uribe scored a victory, such as the release of Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate held hostage by the FARC for 12 years, his popularity surged. "He is really in tune with the people," Mr. Santos says.

But Santos adds that "people see him more as a savior than a president. That means society depends more on a caudillo [Latin American strongman] than on institutions. That is very dangerous for democracy."

Ultimately, Uribe's bid to change the Constitution in order to run again failed. Colombians "were so mesmerized by him, they did not realize how tired they were of the [scandals]," surmises Arlene Tickner, a political analyst at the University of the Andes in Bogotá.

And that, she says, is the main draw of Mockus. Supporters view him as someone who won't fall into politics as usual but will keep Colombia safe and friendly to foreign investment. "That is what is so refreshing about his campaign," Ms. Tickner says.

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The erosion of the 'teflon effect' enjoyed by Colombia's president – political and human rights scandals were long ignored as he developed 'savior' status – reflects a rising call for transparency and perhaps a shift away from Latin America's strongman tradition.

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