Asesino! Asesino! Alvaro Uribe, president of Colombia from 2002-2010, might have been hoping for a warmer reception when he came to speak in London at the end of October 2013. But the hundred or so protestors outside the university venue were determined to make themselves heard. Several burst into the hall where Mr. Uribe was due to speak, reinforcing their message: Uribe, fascista, tu eres terrorista!
For a moment it seemed as though the bitter political divide that has led to a 50 year civil conflict in Colombia, and has claimed more than 200,000 lives with millions more people displaced, was about to erupt before he could even begin to speak.
Guerrilleras! Guerrilleras! shouted a well-dressed Colombian lady, rising to her feet to confront the protestors. ‘I feel it so personally,’ she told anybody willing to hear. ‘They killed my father and my uncle.’
By the time Uribe was ushered in through a side door, order had been restored, although the protestors continued to thump noisily on doors and windows and kept up their chant of Asesino!
Introduced as ‘a man who thinks of tomorrow’, and ‘perhaps the most significant person in recent Latin American history,’ the former president was soon into his stride. He insisted that Colombia was the Latin American country with the longest democratic tradition and respect for the rule of law despite its history ofviolence, and presented his eight years in power as a triumph for his three-pronged strategy: increasing security throughout the country while respecting the Constitution; this improvement brought in increased investment, which in turn led to helping resolve Colombia’s entrenched social problems.
In this way, he argued, a vicious circle had been turned into a virtuous one: the number of homicides related to political violence had been greatly reduced; foreign domestic investment had increased fourfold; and poverty had been brought down from 53% to 37%.
The video below was produced by Alborada Films.
But it was when he turned to the current peace talks with the FARC guerrillas begun last year by his successor Juan Manuel Santos that Uribe became more critical. He has previously called President Santos a ‘traitor’ and his personal bitterness towards the man who succeeded him in 2010 was immediately evident.
‘I did my best to elect Santos,’ he said. ‘He had been defence minister for three years in my administration, and he was elected because he was seen as offering a continuation of the policies I adopted. But I cannot keep quiet while he abandons that platform.’
It was the Santos government’s attempts to bring peace by talking to the FARC guerrillas that was the main focus of Uribe’s disapproval. Claiming that ‘there has been a deterioration in the security of the country, and criminals in some degree have recovered a portion of their power’, Uribe went on to defend the police and armed forces as upholders of the rule of law in Colombia. They were becoming demotivated, he said, because ‘they are being put on the same level as the narco-terrorists’.
Uribe insisted no proper peace talks or dialogue could take place ‘while the terrorist group has stepped up its violent attacks: a 17% increase in the last year.’ He was also indignant that the current government is offering to bring in legislation that would allow ‘former terrorists’ to become elected political representatives. In his view there should be no absolute pardons for those who had killed policemen and soldiers. ‘We can accept shorter sentences, and perhaps pardons for those who merely wore the uniforms but did not take part in actions, but never impunity he said. ‘Impunity has always been the midwife of new violence’.
The former president repeatedly referred to the FARC guerrillas as ‘narco-terrorists’, denying them any political legitimacy. In this sense, he was critical of the way in which he said the Santos government was allowing Colombia’s political agenda to be set by the peace talks, and also of the debate led by the current president about the possible ‘legalization of illicit drugs’.
In 2010, Uribe thought his former defence minister would continue his tough line on confronting the guerrillas and trying to defeat them militarily. As he said in his speech, he felt betrayed by the different approach President Santos has adopted. But, he told the audience, ‘my aspiration was never to be president, but to be a permanent fighter for what I believe in. And I will continue to do so for as long as I am able.’
This has meant that in the past year he has made a forceful return to Colombian politics. He has recently founded a new grouping, the Democratic Centre Party. Barred by the constitution from standing for the presidency again himself in 2014, the party has chosen another of his former ministers, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, minister of finance from 2006 to 2010 as its candidate for the presidential election due to be held in April 2014. In an interview with the Bogotá newspaper El Tiempo, Mr. Zuluaga showed he is much more likely to be on message than President Santos, declaring: ‘I have never believed in this peace process because it’s based on a mistaken premise: a legitimate state cannot sit down on equal terms with an organisation that commits terrorist acts and finances itself through narco-traffic’.
Given that recent opinion polls show that former President Uribe has twice as high an approval rating than Juan Manuel Santos, it could well be that, asesino or not, his influence on Colombia’s future is far from over.