| Uribe’s military successes have been highly visible, but they belie other problems
which in some cases have become institutionalised [EPA]
As Colombians prepare to vote for a new president on Sunday, it would appear they do not want to lose incumbent Alvaro Uribe.
After ruling since 2002 Uribe maintains approval ratings of 60 per cent, having taken Colombia from a situation of widespread kidnappings, common homicides and massacres to one of relative stability.
When the conservative 57-year-old took power, one person was kidnapped in Colombia every three hours. More than a million people had fled the country in the preceeding eight years, and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) was estimated to control 40 per cent of national territory.
The country’s four-decades-old civil war had coalesced with the world’s number one cocaine trade to create an often brutal existence for poor, middle and upper-class Colombians alike.
But Uribe’s hardline ‘democratic security policy’ to fight the Farc and other armed groups, such as the National Liberation Army (ELN), in part by increasing troop numbers and hardware, has pushed the rebels back into the jungle. Farc attacks are down by about 80 per cent and their number of fighters has reduced from 16,000 to 8,000.
The military has claimed notable successes in killing top Farc commanders and freeing hostages, including Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Colombian politician.
Daniel Garcia-Pena, a political analyst and programme director for the Gustavo Petro presidential campaign, said: “There is no doubt that Uribe continues to be a popular figure.
“His successes in the military and the huge hate for Farc that exists in the country continues to fuel his popularity.”
Garcia-Pena said that Uribe’s down-to-earth style and use of television to reach out to the public, in contrast to past Colombian presidents, were also key to his popularity.
“Many Colombians feel that they were orphans of power. Uribe in many ways is a father figure that is able to communicate and be in contact with the people.”
However, the electorate is showing a desire to move away from a continuation of ‘Uribista’ policies.
Juan Manuel Santos, of Uribe’s U-Party and his former defence minister, has lost ground in pre-election polls to Antanas Mockus, of the Green Party, with Mockus predicted to win in a second round run-off.
Uribe’s two terms in office have been blighted by scandals over wire-tapping of journalists, human rights activists and supreme court judges, army killings of civilians paraded as Farc members and accusations that he bought senate votes in a failed attempt to run for a third term.
There has additionally been a probe into legislators, many linked to Uribe’s administration, for alleged ties to militia gangs and illegal or semi-illegal entities who have subsequently entrenched themselves in central and local government.
Claudia Lopez, a political analyst and director of an electoral observation non-governmental organisation, said: “Uribe has much more power than other presidents because his strongest base of power is his regional power.
“He is very popular and very well connected to many of the regional political and economic elites.
“The problem is that many of those regional elites are illegal, or a kind of hybrid that binds the legal and the illegal sides.
“So he is very popular on the central level, with independent voters who are grateful to him for the security successes, but his real base of power is this kind of regional power. Some are illegal, some openly illegal and most of them are hybrid.”
And the war remains unresolved, with the Farc undefeated despite being weakened.
Garcia-Pena, who worked as the high commissioner for peace in the mid-1990s, said: “We are further away from the possibility of a peace deal since any time in recent Colombian history.
“What Uribe has accomplished is a recomposition of the conflict. The Farc have been given very severe blows, and major strategic setbacks. But they are far from being defeated.”
Daily violence is still a threat as new quasi-paramilitary gangs have emerged from demobilised paramilitaries, taking over cocaine smuggling routes. The government has said that the gangs are criminal groups without a national structure.
Uribe’s critics assert that too few economic options have been given to former-paramilitaries to dissuade them from criminality.
Human Rights Watch has said that between 4,000 and 10,000 former paramilitaries have broken a peace deal after being demobilised.
Garcia-Pena said: “The paramilitary groups have been demobilised in their armed structures but their economic and political elites that are linked to these groups continue to hold power in many regions of Colombia.”
Colombia has undergone steady economic growth of 4.6 per cent from 2001 to 2007 and minimised the effect of the global economic crisis via prudent fiscal policies. Growth in Colombia, a top international coffee exporter and Latin America’s fourth largest oil producer, has been helped by increased exports to China, Chile, the US, and Brazil.
In 2009, the country’s growth rate of 0.4 per cent was higher than Latin America’s average of -2.6 per cent.
But this has failed to translate to general benefits for the public. Inequality remains a significant problem, with about 45 per cent of the population of 45 million living in poverty, according to the World Bank.
Such poverty exacerbates Colombia’s huge internal refugee problem by creating vulnerable populations that can be forced from their land by conflict or illegal groups. The number of internally displaced Colombians has increased by 2.4 million since 2003, cementing it as the country with the second highest number of internally displaced people in the world.
Internationally Uribe has allied himself closely with the US to the detriment of Colombia’s relations with its continental neighbours, particularly those with leftist governments.
Colombia is Washington’s main ally in the region and caused disquiet after it allowed US troops greater access to its military bases as an extension of an agreement to fight guerrillas and drug cartels.
Bilateral ties with Venezuela have consequently worsened.
The dispute has led to exports to Venezuela shrinking by 68 per cent, at a value of about $300m annually, between March 2009 and March 2010.
Uribe has pursued a free trade deal with the US, a move highly symbolic of Bogota’s allegiance. But despite years of consultation the agreement is still to be approved by the US congress, which is concerned about Colombia’s human rights record.
Ties with southern neighbour Ecuador have also been strained following a 2008 cross border raid by the Colombian military that led to the death of Raul Reyes, one of the Farc’s principal commanders. Ecuador views the intrusion as an affront to its sovereignty.
Larry Birns, the director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington DC, said: “Uribe always had a preference in favour of the US. He felt that Colombia’s security interests as well as its economic prosperity depended on Washington’s good will.
“What Uribe did is weaken the concept of regionalism and the concept of sovereignty and the special relationship among Latin American countries.
“And it cost Colombia and Uribe to a certain extent by sitting this out by not conforming.”
In this year’s presidential contest, the fast dissipation of Santos’ poll ratings over the last two months may convey how Uribe’s popularity, based on widespread appreciation for security successes, is in fact relatively thin and unable to withstand an onslaught from rival camps.
Yet, voters in Sunday’s poll are placing healthcare, jobs and poverty as their primary concerns, rather than security. Eight years ago that would have been unthinkable.