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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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.