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Opinión años anteriores


  AÑO 2010  

The Man Who Saved Colombia

Eight years ago, Latin America's oldest democracy was on the brink. The outgoing president explains how he restored the peace

Por: Mary Anastasia O'grady
The Wall Street Journal
29 may 2010

It's not quite 7:30 on a Saturday morning when the SUV I'm riding in approaches Colombia's Air Command for Military Transport in the south of the capital. A battleship-gray C-130 lumbers down a runway next to the service road, tilts up and slowly gains altitude. At the guardhouse, a bomb-sniffing German shepherd stands at attention as my driver waits for permission to enter.

In a little more than two months Colombian President Álvaro Uribe will return to civilian life after eight years in office. I've come to talk to him about what he's learned during his historic tenure and where he thinks Colombia is headed. His office has instructed me to meet him here, and I suspect the reason for the time and place: After our meeting he will board Air Force One and travel, as he does several times a week, to somewhere outside the capital where he will assess the state of the nation and press the flesh. Mr. Uribe is a conservative populist, and barnstorming is his stock in trade.

When Mr. Uribe took office in 2002, Colombia was overrun with guerrilla and paramilitary violence. The political class seemed at a loss for solutions. It was an environment that could have easily spawned a dictatorship, as happened in Argentina in 1976.

Today, Colombia remains Latin America's oldest democracy, and most of the country—though not all—is remarkably peaceful. The murder rate dropped 45% from 2002-2009, and kidnappings were down 90% during that same period, according to Colombia's Ministry of Defense.

The president's policies are widely considered to be the reason. A poll published in El Tiempo in December showed that 83% of Colombians thought he should be given a chance to run for a third term (the high court struck down a congressional effort to allow that), 68% had a favorable image of Mr. Uribe, and 73% approved of his leadership. It's hard to think of another politician who has left office with such high marks.

When he greets me in his office, his mood is somber. Within in minutes I learn why. "This morning I am very sad," he tells me as he hangs up from a call with one his generals, "because I received news of two cases of kidnapping, one in [the province of] Antioquia and another in [the province of] Santander." These are "regions where we considered kidnappers defeated."

In a way, it's the perfect place to start the interview. Security has been this president's number one priority.

When I ask why, he doesn't bring up his father, who was murdered by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 1983. Instead he refers to the long history of Colombian violence. "This year is the bicentennial of our independence and during these 200 years, this country has lived only 46 or 47 years of relative peace."

Moreover, he points out, since the 1940s "there has not been one single day of complete peace." This evokes images of the many civil wars of the 1800s, the bloody "Epoch of Violence" between Liberals and Conservatives in the 1950s, and especially the long struggle with the leftist FARC guerillas, which have been backed by Cuba for more than half a century.

This bloodshed has cost the country both lives and treasure. "The lack of peace, the lack of security" is what Mr. Uribe thinks best explains the "poverty, unemployment, misery and inequality" in Colombia. This bitter reality is why he ran his campaign on a "promise" to build confidence "upon three pillars: security, investment promotion and social cohesion."

Mr. Uribe's government has had some success attracting investment, and the poverty rate has fallen to 46%, still painfully high, but down from 54% in 2002. Urban unemployment was 19% that year and is now 12.3%. But it is on security that Mr. Uribe has earned his reputation.

How did he do it? "For security you need more soldiers, you need more policemen, you need more vehicles, you need more planes, you need more guns, you need more communications." He continues with the litany: "You need people, you need intelligence, you need equipment, you need logistics. But what you need most is determination," enunciating this last word slowly. "You can be convinced but if you do not have the determination—and the determination means the will—and the involvement . . ."

"And the sacrifice?" I add. "I don't speak about sacrifice because this is my duty," he shoots back. "But involvement, dedication, all the time. You can't just instruct the armed forces, you have to do follow-up. You have to go with them to the regions, to every place in the country." If you want to understand why the FARC and its left-wing sympathizers hate Mr. Uribe, this is the key: He wakes up every day intent on winning this war.

So how close is the country to victory? He pauses for a long time. "We have improved, but our improvement is not irreversible yet. The terrorist groups have expectations for the new government." If the new government is "not strong enough to fight them, and if they continue to find hideouts in other countries," they will hold onto their hope "to return to Colombia and strengthen their capabilities to kill our people."

Rumor has it that the president spends half of every Friday calling his battalion commanders around the country to discuss their activities. Is this true? "Not exactly," he corrects me. He goes on to explain how his weekly security council meetings are divided into two parts.

One part is an open-mike for all Colombians to launch complaints. He says that initially people were reserved about using this avenue but now they are very "outspoken," and their input is helpful. The second segment is with government officials and members of the military. "My follow-up to battalions is not on Friday, it's every day. It depends much more on the circumstances," he says. "When I get the morning report on security, I call those battalions in the regions where there are problems."

Mr. Uribe has salvaged democracy in a part of the world where criminality is on the rise. I wonder aloud how he sees South America. "When you review the Central American wars or other Latin American wars, you find that there were dictators and there were insurgents." But in Colombia, he says, the two sides are "democracy and narco-trafficking."

This is why he maintains that Colombia is not in a civil war, but rather in a struggle against "terrorists sponsored by narco-trafficking." He says he is most worried about "countries that, having the problem, do not recognize the problem, ignore it, and do not fight it." He doesn't name names, but Venezuela comes immediately to mind.

That reminds me of Hugo Chávez's ambitions to convert all of South America into a collectivist utopia under the banner of his Bolivarian revolution. Ecuador and Bolivia have already signed on. They call their ideology "21st century socialism," and I ask Mr. Uribe if thinks it is a threat to the region. He chooses his words carefully: "If it means the gradual elimination of democracy, it is a threat. If it means the gradual elimination of independent institutions, it is a threat. If it means the gradual elimination of private initiative, it is a threat."

His real gripe with socialism is entirely practical. Referring to the "old socialist model," he says it "brought many more problems than solutions." The main issue was the way in which it destroyed "private initiative, making people lazy and eliminating creativity."

Some analysts say that it was the creativity and industriousness of the Colombian that made this country the center of the cocaine business. How does this president, who has witnessed so much hardship due to the scourge of narco-trafficking, assess the war on drugs?

Many years ago, he says that people thought that Colombia would become neither a producing nor a consuming country, and that it would always remain just a stopping-off point for traffickers. But, he says, "Colombia began producing and nowadays we have more than 300,000 addicts. Therefore we can no longer split our world into the industrialized consuming countries and the southern producing countries."

Does that tell us something about the inefficacy of the war on drugs as a way to reduce demand? He sees where I am going with this line of argument against the current U.S. policy of prohibition and interdiction and he moves to check me. "Many people have spoken about the necessity to legalize the business as a path to diminish criminality." But he argues that consumption in "personal doses" has been decriminalized in Colombia for 15 years and the criminality has only gotten worse. He is proud that his government is currently leading an effort, now moving through Congress, to restore penalties for drug consumption even in personal doses.

Isn't it true that the criminality remained because as long as the supply side remained illegal, the money from drug use was still going to gangsters? Here we find common ground: "What we found was that it is quite difficult to succeed in combating production and trafficking when you have legalized consumption."

But he goes on to defend the war on supply, explaining how coca cultivation is half of what it would be if he had not spearheaded an eradication campaign. The president says his success shows that "it is possible to win this war." He agrees with me that cultivation might have moved to other countries but that is why, he says, "this needs to be an international battle, engaging all governments."

So much talk about drug consumption reminds me of the U.S. I switch gears. The Obama administration and Democrats in Congress have blocked one of Mr. Uribe's most important initiatives—the bilateral free-trade agreement—and I ask about his relationship with Washington these days. He begins his response by making a case for the importance of the alliance for both sides. The U.S., he says, needs a strong ally in the region. And for Colombia, which needs "practical support" against narco-trafficking, U.S. help is crucial.

Nevertheless, having praised his country's great friend, he can't hide his disappointment about how Colombia has been treated on trade: "Of course I cannot understand the delay in the U.S. Congress to ratify our free trade agreement," he says, looking past me and out onto the runway. He leaves it at that.

As to whether he is optimistic about Colombia's future, he responds: "Of course. I have to be." But this answer comes with a qualifier: Colombians must remember where the country was eight years ago. "We are doing better," but "this country has had only 47 years of peace in 200 years of independent life." The new generation will only prosper, he warns, by consolidating the peace. To that end, he is off to Florencia, population 150,000, to carry that message personally, as he has for the past eight years.

Ms. O'Grady writes the Journal's Americas column.


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