Oct 08

In an interview with BBC Mundo published today, Colombian Vice President makes a novel argument. The main reason Álvaro Uribe should be re-elected to a third term, Santos says, is because Colombia faces “generic” threats from outside its borders. Excerpt:

BBC: “And you, as vice-president of Colombia. Are you in favor of Álvaro Uribe’s re-election?”

Vice-President Francisco Santos: “Look, I am in favor of Álvaro Uribe’s re-election, given the situation of the continent. A very complex situation in which the threat to Colombia has become ‘trans-border.’ The threat to Colombia is outside its borders. There is an urgent need to continue and put an end to criminal and terrorist organizations. I believe we are in a moment in which it is needed simply to keep pressuring. And I don’t believe Colombia should now be experimenting, making a change and having learning processes (…). A third term for the president would not affect democracy. Those who say it would do not believe in democracy (…).”

BBC: “You say that the threat to Colombia comes from outside its borders. What are you referring to?”

Santos: “The Colombian problem today has some connotations that generate complexities that you know well, you have seen them and reported on them. I don’t want to be specific in this sense so as not to generate diplomatic complications, but it is a reality that the world recognizes and that, for Colombia, brings about some political and, above all, diplomatic challenges to which it is urgent to begin to attend.”

BBC: “Might this concrete case [this week's Colombian Defense Ministry allegation that the FARC has encampments inside Ecuador] be what is being referred to when you spoke of trans-border threats against Colombia?”

Santos: “Essentially, no.”

BBC: “Then, what were you talking about concretely?”

Santos: “I’ll repeat. I prefer to leave that in generic terms, which is the best way to manage an issue as complicated as that (…), which is ever more clear about, that represents a threat to the continent, but for Colombia represents a challenge that is, above all, diplomatic (…).”

BBC: “You give the impression that you are making an indefinite accusation, like someone who throws a stone then conceals his hand, to say it flatly.”

Santos: “Well, this is what many do, and I believe that in diplomacy sometimes one has to talk to Juan so that Pedro understands. So I think it is important in that sense. But I believe that you as journalists who cover the world and reality, you know how things are.”

BBC: “You’re not willing to be more concrete.”

Santos: “No, no.”

Aug 28

Greetings from my couch – I’ve been out sick the last two days. But this morning I took lots of ibuprofen and wrote this analysis of the Colombia base agreement dispute and the UNASUR meeting for the Huffington Post.

Also to update on the re-election referendum debate in Colombia’s Congress: the process of reviewing all 92 legislators’ recusal requests has proven to be too time-consuming, and the House adjourned Wednesday night, postponing further deliberations for as many as eight days. Some Colombian press has been speculating that the pro-reelection camp is still uncertain about whether they have the votes, and may need a few extra days to twist arms outside the spotlight.

Aug 26

Following up on yesterday’s post: Colombia’s House of Representatives did not vote last night on the re-election referendum bill. They adjourned near midnight after 92 of the body’s 166 members recused themselves from the vote.

The main reason was that 86 of them were already under investigation by Colombia’s Supreme Court for the crime of “prevaricato” – roughly, acting against legal procedure. Several months ago, these 86 voted in favor of the referendum before they were legally allowed to do so, as Colombia’s governmental Registry had not yet approved the signatures on the public petitions that made the vote legally possible.

As a result, the chamber spent its session yesterday considering each recusal request individually, and the vote never occurred. It may occur tonight, as the House is convening again this afternoon.

El Tiempo indicates that when the vote does occur, the referendum to allow President Uribe to seek immediate re-election is likely to be approved.

While it was not possible to pass the law, from the first moments it was more or less clear that the necessary votes were in place.

The first sign was the body’s refusal to approve a request from Rep. Guillermo Rivera to exclude the issue from the day’s agenda. The request was denied by a 93-42 vote.

One way to interpret this, as several congresspeople said, is that it indicated that the 93 representatives who refused to approve Rivera’s proposal are the same ones who want to vote in favor of the referendum.

Aug 25

Today may be the most important day for Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s bid to run for a third straight term in office. The lower house of the country’s Congress, the Chamber of Representatives, is to vote on legislation to hold a referendum this fall. In that vote, Colombians will decide whether to change their constitution – for the second time in four years – to allow Uribe to compete in the May 2010 presidential vote and remain in power for twelve straight years.

A month ago, after opposition figures took over the presidencies of Colombia’s House and Senate, most Colombian analysts were arguing that the re-election referendum was as good as dead. But late last week, some hard-nosed behind-the-scenes politicking convinced Colombia’s Senate to pass a bill.

This legislation, allowing a referendum for a third consecutive re-election, closely resembles what the Senate had already passed. The House, however, had months ago passed a bill interpreted only as allowing a referendum to give Uribe the right to run in 2014, leaving the Congress deadlocked.

It is not clear whether, when it votes tonight, the lower house will change its position and approve a referendum for 2010 reelection. The pro-reelection camp first needs a quorum: 84 of 166 representatives must be present for the vote. Those who do show up are almost certain to vote yes, with the rest boycotting to prevent the possibility of a quorum. (This is what happened in the Senate, when 58 of 102 senators reported for a 56-2 vote in favor of the referendum.)

Whether that 84-member threshold will be reached is the subject of feverish speculation in Colombia’s media. The pro-Uribe camp claims to have more than 85, or as many as 92 or 94 votes, already locked up. Opposition figures, meanwhile, are denouncing that legislators are being offered favors, or otherwise pressured, to vote “yes” to allow the referendum.

If the bill passes the House this evening, its next step is Colombia’s Constitutional Court, which must guarantee that the referendum law meets with several procedural and constitutional requirements (explained in a Flash animation, in Spanish, on the La Silla Vacía website).

The outlook is completely uncertain.

Oct 29

The parties in President Uribe’s coalition won governorships in less than half the country, and in only a few of the most populous departments. (Source: votebien.com, adding candidates from the Alas Equipo and “La ‘U’“parties.)

Colombia held municipal and departmental elections yesterday. The voting was mostly peaceful, though the past few months’ campaigning was quite violent, with dozens of attacks on candidates, the majority carried out by the FARC.

Here are a few notes about yesterday’s election results.

  • President Álvaro Uribe and his supporters cannot be happy about the outcome.

Candidates from the pro-Uribe coalition got more votes than any other single party, but failed to win the mayorships of Colombia’s three largest cities. Pro-Uribe party candidates won about 15 of 32 governorships, and the mayor’s offices of about 14 of 32 departmental capitals.

  • Independent candidates did well.

The term refers to candidates from neither the Uribista coalition nor either of the two main opposition parties (the Liberals and the Alternative Democratic Pole). Candidates from small, usually locally focused, political movements – many of them from the left – scored some key victories.

In Medellín Alonso Salazar, an expert on violence and gang activity who served as Secretario del Gobierno (similar to deputy mayor) under popular Mayor Sergio Fajardo, came from behind in the polls to defeat former mayor Luis Pérez by a comfortable margin. Salazar, from the same small independent left-of-center political movement as Fajardo, was polling in the single digits a few months ago, while Pérez had locked up the support of Medellín’s traditional politicians and much of its business community. Though not the most charismatic campaigner, Salazar was helped by his association with Fajardo and by a wide range of endorsements – from the pop singer Juanes to President Uribe’s wife Lina Moreno.

In Cali Jorge Iván Ospina, another candidate from a small left-of-center political group, surprised many by beating Francisco Lloreda, scion of one of the city’s oldest and wealthiest families. The 39-year-old mayor-elect is the son of an M-19 leader killed in combat in the mid-1980s.

Colombia’s traditional parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, had a hard time in Colombia’s cities. They remain quite strong in rural areas, though, judging from mayoral results in rural municipalities and gubernatorial results in more rural departments. The Liberals won nine departmental governorships (out of 32) and about 200 mostly rural municipalities (out of about 1,100); the Conservatives – part of the pro-Uribe coalition – took three governorships and about 200 mostly” rural municipalities.

  • The “united left” did reasonably well, but showed its weaknesses.

Colombia’s united left opposition party, the Alternative Democratic Pole, held onto the Bogotá mayor’s seat, which is often referred to as the second-most powerful position in the country. Samuel Moreno, with a come-from behind victory, beat former mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who was President Uribe’s choice. Moreno succeeds popular Alternative Democratic Pole mayor Luis Eduardo Garzón. Though Garzón did not support Moreno in their party’s primary election – the outgoing mayor is more politically moderate than Moreno – his high approval ratings (consistently over 60 percent) gave the candidate a boost.

In the days before the election, President Uribe gave Moreno a great political gift. On several occasions the president urged voters not to support Moreno and the Alternative Democratic Pole by implying that the party was tied to the FARC. On a visit to the Caribbean coast town of Algarrobo, Magdalena last Thursday, Uribe said, “Today Algarrobo speaks to Bogotá. May they not make the mistake there … of electing mayors supported by the guerrillas who also buy votes.” Uribe made similar statements on Friday and Saturday, and had his ministers of interior and defense do the same.

Continue reading »

Oct 16

Last week the largest party in the coalition backing Colombian President Álvaro Uribe approved a resolution calling on Uribe to run for an unprecedented third consecutive term in 2010. The “Party of the ‘U’” promised to gather the 1.3 millionsignatures necessary for a petition to amend Colombia’s constitution to allow Uribe to run again.

If Uribe’s popularity rating continues to hover at around 60-70 percent, as it has for five years, he very well could win again and serve until 2014. Though he hinted in September that he might not seek re-election in 2010, Uribe has been curiously silent about the “U” Party’s latest move.

There are many in Washington, CIP included, who believe that the United States has pursued an unbalanced, reckless, exceedingly militarized and ineffective strategy in Colombia. Most of us believe that as part of that strategy, the U.S. government has been too warm, unquestioning and uncritical in its public embrace of Álvaro Uribe.

If President Uribe wants to do us a great favor, if he wants to make our work in Washington far easier, he should absolutely run for a third term.

  • If he stays for a third term, Álvaro Uribe’s stock would drop dramatically in U.S. public opinion. By laying bare Uribe’s inability to loosen his grip on power, by highlighting his refusal to let Colombia’s institutions develop and do their jobs, a new re-election effort would leave a terrible taste here. Even if Uribe continued to position himself as a close U.S. ally, those in Washington who have been concerned about his authoritarian tendencies would have their suspicions confirmed.
  • Members of Colombia’s political class who have been waiting for Uribe to step aside and give them a turn would drop out of the president’s coalition – and become vocal critics with access to Washington opinionmakers.
  • Surely, some in Washington would continue to back Uribe, if only because he isn’t Hugo Chávez. But Uribe’s remaining U.S. backers would no longer be able to argue that the United States must support “Colombia’s Winston Churchill.” The more accurate analogy would become, perhaps, “Colombia’s Alberto Fujimori” – or in words attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt, “an S.O.B., but our S.O.B.”
  • Should a third term become a serious possibility, continued U.S. assistance to Colombia – even economic aid – would become a much tougher sell. By 2010, the United States will probably have given Colombia $7 billion since Plan Colombia’s inception a decade earlier. After so much investment in “South America’s oldest democracy,” such strong evidence of that democracy’s degradation would place the entire policy in doubt. Future aid near today’s generous levels would be unlikely.
  • And of course, if Washington is still considering a free-trade agreement at the same time Colombia is debating a constitutional re-election amendment, Uribe’s ambitions would only foster doubts about Colombia’s democratic credentials, working to the advantage of the agreement’s opponents here.

This scenario is still hypothetical – but the “U” Party certainly set it in motion last week. Let’s see where it goes.

Jul 02

Here, with English subtitles, is a brief (3:42) conversation with Wilson Borja, a Colombian congressman from the opposition Alternative Democratic Pole party. It was recorded in Brussels last Thursday, a few hours after we learned of the murder of eleven Valle del Cauca legislators.

Rep. Borja, a labor leader who has represented Bogotá in the Congress since 2002, talks about the necessity of a humanitarian exchange accord to free the remaining hostages. He argues that the Colombian government should be the most subject to international pressure because it is the only legal, institutional party involved. That is a compelling argument, but I don’t give it a full endorsement. In my view, both sides should be pressured to make the compromises necessary to get to the table.

I do, however, share Rep. Borja’s confusion at the Uribe government’s recent release of guerrilla prisoners, which has yielded no results. And I strongly share his concern for the safety of members of Rep. Borja’s political party; an Alternative Democratic Pole leader was murdered in Antioquia department early last week.