Colombia: the Uribe legacy
by Armen Kouyoumdjian
September 5, 2011
The former president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, has taken over from the equally insufferable José María Aznar, as the speaking guest of choice for the high masses of the right’s events in Chile. This year alone, he pontificated at the anniversary of a think tank, a defence seminar and the annual gathering of a leading brokerage firm. He also does this in other countries in the region, but nowhere is he more popular than in Chile.
To tell the truth, I tried to warn those involved in inviting him, as well as the columnists fawning over his “record” but, if they do not even recognise me as the only analyst who predicted the student revolt ten years in advance, the chances that my revelations on the real Uribe and his handling of Colombia getting any mileage, would be somewhat thin. Never mind that protests from other prestigious academics in both countries, together with several Eurodeputies, forced him to abandon teaching posts at France’s Ecole Nationale d’Ingénieurs de Metz (ENIM) and Georgetown Universiy in the USA . Uribe is always welcome in the upper circles of Chile.
For readers who like the truth rather than propaganda, and indebted to insiders in Colombia who are neither Bolsheviks nor involved in any way in local politics, here is an attempt to set the record straight and look at improvements that his successor Juan Manuel Santos is trying to introduce.
THE CURRENT SECURITY SITUATION IN COLOMBIA
Uribe came in after his first election with the promise to do away with the FARC “in 6 months”.
Nine years on, the FARC is still very much alive. Their “elimination”
claims were due to “false positive” reports of deaths, most of which were
innocent civilians, and their “return to civilian life” was stage-managed
events where common prisoners were dressed up as FARC fighters and it was claimed
in front of the media that they were leaving the group. Official figures show that the FARC
is a major presence in 339 out of the country’s 1099 municipalities. Often, the local inhabitants
prefer to have them around rather than the bullying and demoralised Colombian security
forces, whose excesses are now well documented.
The levels of violence have been climbing up again for several years, and
in 2010 were getting dangerously close to the 2002 peak. Though it is true
that the roads are safer to travel on, it is still very risky to go inland
away from the main highways. The number of persons displaced due to the
violence (nearly 2.5 million) is only beaten by Sudan.
The fight against the drugs trade, which together with terrorism , was the
main aim of the US-financed Plan Colombia, has been unsuccessful, putting
it mildly. The production of cocaine is up, despite public claims to the
contrary, and the country now produces more heroin than Afghanistan.
Colombia did not even get a present from the USA, despite being their closest (cynics
would say, only) friend in the region. After three years, Congress in
Washington has yet to approve a bilateral Free Trade Agreement, even
though in mid-August there was news of a bipartisan agreement to move the
matter forward. Many in the USA also rightly regard Plan Colombia as
having been a waste of money.
What can you expect from a man who last February
holidayed, at the invitation of a Venezuelan magnate, in the Dominican
Republic in company of both Senior and Junior Bushes, and José María
Aznar? It reminds one of the mafia leaders’ get-togethers in gangster films.
The corruption is all pervasive in and anound Uribe. No less than the
extradited head of the paramilitary told a US court that he helped
financed Uribe’s first election in 2002, and there was also a lot of
illegal financing of the 2006 campaign. His two sons, Tomás and Jeronimo,
have shamelessly benefitted from their father’s job to line their
pockets. His cousin was jailed for corruption, as was his fomer
agriculture minister , convicted of grabbing land from small farmers and
giving it to big landowners.
The biggest scandal was with the security services DAS, accused (including
by the Washington Post, hardly a Communist mouthpiece) of using
US-delivered equipment to spy on local political opponents rather than
violent groups and drug dealers as intended. Both the former head of the DAS and
Uribe’s own chief of staff have been arrested. The anti-drug agency, DNE,
was not left behind, passing assets grabbed from arrested drug traffickers
to friendly politicians.
The Uribe administration was also very generous with foreign mining
companies, allowing them concessions and tax breaks even though their
activities, located near sources of water, are highly contaminating.
Meanwhile, illegal groups have been diversifying, in parallel with the drugs
trade, into illegal gold mining, encouraged by the rising price of the
Finally, Uribe really showed where he stood morally by getting close to
Israel to the extent that even his US friends were worried. Not only did
he negotiate an upgrade of the Colombian air force’s Israeli-made Kfir
fighters, and acquired drones from the same country, but he initiated an
intelligence-sharing programme with Mossad. This did not stop the United
Nations tfrom naming him as part of the panel investigating the shameful
Israeli attack on the humanitarian flotilla heading for Gaza.
It is only a matter of time, as I warned the autistic Chilean hosts and
other local opinion leaders, all of whom ignored me royally, that Uribe
himself will become a judicial pariah and be arrested or escape to some
place from where he cannot be extradited. They will all look pretty silly,
but then they are that most of the time anyway. No fewer than 29 NGOs have
asked the International Criminal Court to investigate him. His words at a
recent talk he gave in El Salvador, where he recommended that one “should
not negotiate with organized crime but bring them to justice”, may soon
apply to him.
He may be popular in Vitacura and Lo Barnechea, but in Colombia itself,
with the October local elections approaching, all candidates sponsored by
him are suffering from the “kiss of death” syndrome, trailing behind their
competitors, even in Uribe’s own fiefdom of Antioquia. As one source in
Colombia put it to me, Uribe is “An admirable bullshitter
in a country perenially waiting for a Messiah”. In this case, it looks as
if they got the Antechrist.
SANTOS ATTEMPTS AT REFORM
If Alvaro Uribe thought that the election of his former minister of defence as
his successor would give continuity to his policies and safety for himself,
he was soon disappointed. Juan Manuel Santos turned out to be very much
his own man and, besides taking his distances from Uribe, he has given a
free hand to those going after him.
Let us read the words of Uribe himself on the subject in a June interview:
“this government does not have to pass me off as corrupt to move its
anti-corruption policy forward.” According to Uribe, Santos is performing
aesthetic changes to corrupt entities without really fighting the
corruption. “Right now they are applying the same Agro Ingreso Seguro law
we made [of which money meant to stimulate poor farmers ended up in the
hands of wealthy families] and have just changed the name,” said Uribe.
“They’re simply discrediting a government that worked with patriotism. As
a result I am forced to defend myself and that defence I do facing
Colombians in the streets and on public squares.”
It is true that there are accusations that Santos is just “Uribe with
better manners”, and it should not be forgotten that he was no less than
the minister of defence when excesses were committed by the armed forces.
Nevertheless, it is style and appearance which is paramount in this part of the world
so he should not be dismissed outright; he also deserves to be given the
benefit of doubt.
His approach so far has been businesslike and fence-mending. On foreign
policy, he seems to have ended the ongoing confrontation with Chávez in
Venezuela. At home, he announced indemnities for the victims of violence,
to be settled over a 10-year period, and described the extreme right as a
“black hand”. He has changed the definition of the fight against violent
groups (the FARC and the ELN) from “anti-terrorist” to “armed conflict”.
To show he means business, he recently fired the incumbent defence
minister and replaced him with a close associate, Juan Carlos Pinzon.
Just 39 year old, Pinzon had previously been deputy defence minister and
was serving as the presidential chief of staff. There are expectations of
possible changes in the armed forces’ high command in the near future.
Pinzon’s predecessor was sent to a safe distance as ambassdaor to the EU.
Illustrating the importance of “image” , Santos also renamed the security
operation, dubbed “Democratic Security” by Uribe, to “Citizen Security”.
If there were any doubts about his original initiative, he has asked the
notorious Spanish magistrate Garzon (the one who got Pinochet) to advise
It is not an easy task. There are a lot of vested interests and people who
will not like their toes to be stepped on. There are mercenary journalists
still defending Uribe at home, and he is also interviewed by compliant
internatonal media, some of whom have been found to be showing their columns
to paramilitary leaders for “vetting”. Also, more changes are needed in
legislation and practice. A legal reform stipulates that all cases against
senior officials have to be investigated by the country’s chief prosecutor
in person. Believe it or not, there are as many as 1,150 such cases in
progress, but the chief prosecutor admitted that with luck, she could only
deal with three a year !
THE ECONOMIC SITUATION
In the midst of all this, how is Colombia´s economy doing? One has to say
that throughout the troubled or erratic times of the Latin American economies
in the past three decades, the country has shown a resilience above most.
Some attribute this to the fact that there is a stable professional quality civil
service at the middle level, whereas other countries think that declaring the Central Bank
“independent” by decree, and then fighting like “chiffonniers” between
political parties each time they want to appoint a doorman (guess which
country I am thinking about), is a real separation of duties.
One curious aspect of Colombia’s macroeconomics is that statistics are
very slow to come out. We only have GDP for the first quarter, which grew
by 5.1%, whereas expectations for the full year are currently for around
4 to 4.5%, not outstanding but honourable. Inflation is running at under
4%. Unemployment as of July was 11.6%, one point lower than a year ago,
and close to a 10-year minimum.
The 2010 fiscal deficit was 3.6% of GDP, not good but not too worrying
either. It is expected to be lower in 2011. External debt as of May was US$60 bn,
of which 52% was public, and 16.8% owed within a year). The banking sector is
considered healthy as is the external sector. There are detailed trade figures only
up to May, but they show a surplus of US$1.82 bn with exports up 36.4%
and imports 41.3% higher. One important aspect is the sharp increase in
oil production and exports, which has transformed Colombia into a middle
size energy powerhouse. Oil output in August was up by 21% to 953,000
barrels per day, and the government has announced US$1.5 bn of investment
in the sector over the next five years. There are still problems of security
at oil fields. Though the country still imports some US$2 bn of oil
products, the balance of oil and fuels trade is largely positive.
Oil is now by far the country’s largest export, accounting for 49% of the
total so far this year, followed by coal (14%) . Coffee, which was once
the country’s main export product, is now down to less than 6%. In 1985,
it represented half of total sales abroad.
Remittances from Colombians abroad are stll going strong, totalling US$2
bn in the first semester. External reserves were US$31.75 bn as of end
July, a 12-month increase of nearly US$ 5.5 bn. The country also has a US$6
bn contingent credit at the IMF. The authorities are confident they can
face an “external shock”.
Problems there are aplenty, notwithstanding that the country came second
only to Uruguay (and ahead of Chile) in a July classification of “good
business climate”. The pension and health systems need a major overhaul,
for example (Santos called the current cost of pension “unsustainable”). A
fiscal reform due this year was postponed to 2012, to apply from 2013.