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Álvaro Uribe: War and peace

Sep 1, 2013

Hard-won security improvements in Colombia are at risk of being undone, says former president Álvaro Uribe

By Taimur Ahmad

For former president Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s economic boom during his years in office was ultimately down to one thing: his iron fist in confronting Latin America’s longest-running armed insurgency.

Uribe wielded that fist to dramatic effect from the moment he took office in 2002, through to the end of his second term eight years later. Over that period, Colombia’s military smashed an armed guerilla insurgency, most notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), the country’s strongest rebel group, whose numbers were halved to roughly 8,000.

The philosophy of the 61-year old lawyer turned politician – that there can be no development without security – paid dividends for Colombia’s economy.

During his administration, output in Latin America’s fourth largest oil exporter boomed, with GDP growth averaging 4.3%, nearly double the average of the previous decade; and investment expanded faster than at any point in the country’s modern history, as a violence receded from commercial areas.

In an interview with LatinFinance, Uribe says such gains were down to "the determination to advance simultaneously in security, in investment promotion and in social cohesion."

He also succeeded in helping overturn widespread perceptions of Colombia, Washington’s staunchest ally in Latin America, as a failing narco-state. "The main contribution of our government was to inoculate in the minds of many Colombians the idea that it is possible for Colombia to be a safe country, with the highest investment rate in the region and one which speeds up poverty reduction towards a much fairer society in income distribution," he says.

"We couldn’t harvest complete results but we planted good seeds."

In the balance

But in a move that has since bitterly divided the nation, his successor, Juan Manuel Santos, last year bet his political legacy on an unprecedented bid for peace with the same rebels Uribe vowed to vanquish.

For Uribe, Colombia’s future now hangs in the balance. The former president has lashed out with increasing vehemence against his successor – criticism that has intensified since Uribe took over as head of the leading opposition coalition.

Although he is constitutionally barred from a third term, Uribe is seeking to field a candidate for 2014 elections who will end peace talks; a frontrunner for that role is his former vice-president Francisco Santos, who is also a cousin – and fierce critic – of president Santos.

Uribe insists he is not opposed to peace talks themselves, but rather the manner in which they are being pursued. He says Santos, his former defense minister, is negotiating at the expense of security. "My disagreement with this government is not because of the talks. It’s because talks should never be conducted at the expense of security and there has been some level of deterioration in security," he says.

He refuses to accept that the insurgency could have any legitimate basis – including the oft-cited economic and social disparities in whose name the rebels claim to fight. "Colombia is a democratic country. We have no insurgency against a dictatorship," he says. "We have narco-terrorists affecting the rule of law."

In May, the Santos government reached an historic agreement with the Farc on the agrarian reform, a critical demand of the group since its founding in 1964. The accord was hailed by both sides as "the beginning of radical transformations in the rural and agrarian reality of Colombia, with equity and democracy."

But Uribe rejects the basis for the accord. "I cannot understand how, with narco-terrorist groups, the government undertakes the initiative to define the future of agriculture or to figure out how to reshape the institutions of our democracy."

He lambasts the government, claiming it has granted impunity to "terrorists" in a manner that undermines the rule of law in Colombia. Santos has denied charge, saying that he is seeking "transitional justice" for Farc rebels.

But Uribe says that concept is incompatible with a democratic nation already operating under the rule of law.

"Transitional justice is only appropriate in those countries making the transition to the rule of law," he says. "I could accept that we shorten sentences, but to grant impunity is to create expectations for new criminals to escalate delinquency."

More fundamentally, for Uribe, the very notion of striking a deal with people responsible for atrocities is anathema; his own father was killed by the Farc in 1983. "I’m a member of one family that has suffered violence, as have 50% of Colombians," he says.

But his detractors argue that Uribe’s own record is less than spotless: his military campaign against the Farc, they say, was only possible thanks to an alliance with groups associated with right-wing paramilitaries – themselves responsible for much barbarity. Since 2006, more than 60 lawmakers allied with Uribe have been convicted of colluding with or benefiting from ties to such groups.

What’s at stake

Santos’ aim is to demilitarize the Farc and bring them into the political fold. But to Uribe, granting political legitimacy to the group is unthinkable.

The government "has placed all the interest in talks with terrorist groups," he says. "We face the risk of granting both impunity and political eligibility to terrorist groups."

As he puts it, the real risk in integrating Marxist revolutionaries into the political process is of shifting the terms of debate sharply to the left. What’s at stake is Colombia’s very political stability, he warns.

"It is a risky scenario for the country," he says. "Why should those involved in atrocities be politically eligible? Maybe what this organization wants is to be granted impunity and political eligibility and to prepare its path back to undertake government in the year 2018 and to replicate in Colombia the Cuban and Venezuelan model."

Santos has said the real issue is how far Colombians are willing to go for the sake of peace. He has also publicly accused his predecessor and former mentor of misrepresenting his approach.

"There are some who apparently prefer more years of conflict, more years of pain and death, to the possibility of peace," he said. But as the talks drag on and in the wake of withering criticism, the president’s approval ratings have dropped below 50%, from highs above 74% when he took office.

Uribe insists his own agenda was never at odds with peace. "We were advancing a lot in peace," he says. His role today is "as a fighter" for his ideals. "This is not a moment of my ambitions, it’s a moment of my duty to contribute in the fight [for my ideals]."

He adds: "The country tasted this possibility [of a secure and prosperous country] during the eight years of my administration and I hope the country will never forget that path."

Economic cost

Ultimately, though, resolving the conflict could prove to be a significant boost for the economy.

Asked what peace would now mean for Colombia’s economy, Uribe points to the economic gains his administration had achieved through improved security. "It speaks for itself," he says. "During our government in the name of security we advanced a lot of peace, in addition to the stimuli we introduced to promote investment. The outcome gives you the answer: domestic investment grew four times and foreign investment expanded seven times."

Analysts estimate, that ongoing conflict has cost 1% - 2% of GDP growth per year for almost 50 years. A peace dividend could be substantial.

Colombians, though, are skeptical: three previous peace attempts, the last ending with Uribe took office in 2002, failed. And if Uribe has his way, the fourth one will too. LF

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