Presidential Re-Election in Colombia
With Colombia’s highest court just approving the constitutionality of a law that allows for the president’s re-election, supporters of Alvaro Uribe Vélez are stepping up their campaign to give the hard-line conservative another four years in the presidential palace, saying now is not the time to change course in the country. They point to recent public opinion polls showing approval ratings of up to 78 percent for the president, and drops in the official kidnapping and murder rates nationwide since Uribe took office in 2002. In a six to three decision, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ended months of political uncertainty on October 19, ruling that the Congress was within its mandate to approve the law to allow for the re-election of the president, although it did not permit the legislature to amend the Constitution at will.
President Uribe responded favorably to the ruling, calling it “an important step for democracy,” and stating his support for a similar measure that would allow for the re-election of governors and mayors. The decision opened the way for an early start to the campaign season, which will culminate with presidential elections in May 2006. Supporters and opponents of Uribe have been preparing their arguments for months.
Press reports in Colombia often credit the president’s dual strategy of negotiating a demobilization deal with right wing paramilitaries and confronting left-wing guerillas militarily with bringing security to many regions of the country. These apparent successes are welcomed in Washington, which has invested over $4 billion dollars in Colombia since 2000, mostly in the form of military and security assistance.
But not everybody is convinced that things are going so well. A growing chorus of human rights activists, opposition politicians, trade unionists, and peasant and indigenous leaders are raising their voices not only to counter Uribe and criticize his policies, but also to present alternatives in areas of development, security, and perhaps most importantly, peace.
“Today, about $1.65 million U.S. dollars a day are being directed to Colombia’s military from the United States through Plan Colombia,” said Ivan Cepeda, director of the Manuel Cepeda Foundation, named after his father, a former senator who was killed by paramilitaries in 1994. “There needs to be an investment in productive development alternatives, not in war.”
A leading figure in Colombia’s large victim’s rights movement, Cepeda is particularly concerned with ongoing talks between the Uribe government and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the paramilitary organization accused of carrying out hundreds of civilian massacres over the past 15 years and forcibly displacing over two million people. While in recent months there have been a number of high-profile ceremonies where AUC fighters have turned in their weapons in front of the TV cameras, an October 16 report published in Colombia’s leading newspaper El Tiempo described how new paramilitary groups are popping up in different regions of the country, where younger fighters are taking over the leadership ranks of those taking part in the demobilization effort.
“Peace does not mean simply turning in some weapons by low-level fighters, these people need to be brought to justice and measures have to be put in place to make sure they never take up arms again,” said Cepeda. He accused the government of “improvising with the demobilization plan” and not providing real alternatives to former paramilitary combatants while providing legal protections to the AUC leadership.
One concrete case where paramilitaries continue to maintain control is in the southern province of Guaviare in the Colombian Amazon. In one of the president’s weekly community town hall meetings held on October 1 in San Jose, the provincial capital, Pedro Arenas, an independent member of the Colombian House of Representatives from Guaviare confronted Uribe about the continuing assassinations and forced disappearances of community leaders and the almost daily extortion carried out by paramilitary groups that control the town.
“If you have a pig, they charge you $5,000 pesos (about two dollars), if you have a few chickens, 2,000 pesos each. They charge you a tax on just about everything,” Arenas told the president in the nationally broadcast event. Referring to the president’s policy of “Democratic Security,” Arenas informed the president that it has not arrived in the region “because the paramilitaries control the town, have infiltrated local institutions, and make the people live in constant subordination.”
The next day, Arenas and several members of his Independent Communal and Community Movement received death threats from a local paramilitary commander, Pedro Oliverio Guerrero Castillo, alias “Cuchillo,” or “Knife,” the notorious head of the Guaviare Block of the AUC. The Guaviare Block is not currently involved in negotiations with the government.
While President Uribe put out an arrest warrant for “Cuchillo” after Arenas’ denunciations, almost three weeks have passed and the paramilitary commander is still at large. During a recent trip to the United States for a series of meetings with members of Congress and human rights organizations, Arenas said, “this is a typical pattern under Uribe. The president publicly tells his security officials to go after the illegal groups, giving the paramilitaries plenty of time to go run and hide.”
With the court’s ruling significantly increasing the probability that Uribe will serve another four years in office, this pattern is likely to continue. Nevertheless, opposition leaders like Arenas still believe it is too early to prepare for a second inauguration for the president, notwithstanding the favorable polls for Uribe. “The campaign has not really begun. Once we get to openly discuss the many contradictions in his policies, those numbers will begin to drop,” he said.
Mario A. Murillo is associate professor in the School of Communication at Hofstra University, and host of Wake-Up Call on WBAI Pacifica Radio in New York City. He is author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization (Seven Stories Press, 2004). This article first appeared in Colombia Journal. Thanks to Garry Leech.