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A Cowboy President
By Marco Palacios
The United States continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid into Colombia, fanning the fires of civil war. The following article analyzes the recent presidential election in Colombia of right-winger Alvaro Uribe. Written by Marco Palacios, former rector of the National University of Colombia, the article was published in the Madrid daily, El Pais. It was translated by David Alper and Charlie Roberts and reprinted with permission of the author.
Portrayed as a right-winger, President Uribe's ideology is not explicit. It would be superfluous in Colombia, a country where people are fed up with traditional politicians, distrust what they say, and take note of their gestures and attitudes only to figure out whether it's worth voting or not.
However, support for the new Colombian president has come from the traditional political establishment. Uribe's political career stretches back 30 years, including experience as a member of Congress and the three levels of the executive. The sixth Colombian president to come from the rich, populous and conservative state of Antioquia, Uribe is the first Antioquian from the Liberal Party. During the infighting in the Liberal Party in the 1980s, Uribe aligned himself with the mainstream faction and against the reformist current of Luis Carlos Galan, supported the candidacy of President Samper, and campaigned in the 1998 elections with Horacio Serpa.
With the announcement of his presidential ambitions, Uribe was portrayed as a "law and order" candidate, in a country that many observers see floundering towards chaos. Uribe is known as the founder of the Convivir "self-defense cooperatives" he set up while governor of Antioquia (1995-97) that worked with paramilitary death squads. Uribe consistently opposed the policy of peace negotiations of former President Pastrana. Politically astute, he tapped into the growing sense of frustration in Colombian society with the weakness of President Pastrana and the corrupt and ineffective methods of the members of Congress.
When the terrible events of September 11 radically transformed the context of international political discourse, Uribe had already planted the idea in public opinion of a sheriff in the Wild West: "Either with me or against me." Few politicians had the credibility to speak of the FARC or ELN guerillas as terrorist organizations and at the same time criticize traditional politicking. Modernizing public institutions and defeating terrorism went hand in hand, and only an effective government, inspired by middle class values, could save Colombia.
The change in language brought on by September 11 permeated Colombian media, the middle classes, the urban and rural poor. The implausible obstinacy of President Pastrana in maintaining negotiations with the FARC, as if nothing had changed, as well as the paralysis of his rival Horacio Serpa, unable to distance himself from the disdained political class, explain Uribe's meteoric rise and victory, which was bolstered by the excesses of the FARC, in their attempts to polarize the country.
Once again, Colombians have put all their expectations into their president. Uribe is in a strong position because of the mandate from Colombians searching for authority. His strength derives from the fragmentation of political parties, and is also due to the diminished capacity of constitutional (and illegal) actors to react to his initiatives. For example, congressmen who slyly slid into his cap cannot ignore the plank of Uribe's platform, which states: "On August 7, at 5:00 p.m., if I am elected, thanks to the grace of God and the support of the Colombian people, I will present a 'Referendum against Political Corruption' reducing the size of Congress, and eliminating their salary, pension and pork privileges. Another plank of his platform states: "We cannot continue to have a Congress that costs $240 million dollars a year (much less than the FARC's budget) while the entire budget for public housing is only $60 million. We must reduce the number of congressmen from 266 to 150 ... ."
Other factors contribute to a better understanding of the new prospects for Colombian politics. In a country with great regional disparities, Uribe represents the stereotypical Antioqueño: individualistic, hard working, festive, white, Catholic, respectful of authority and above all, patriarchal hierarchy. This explains Uribe's insistence on recovering values of order and harmony derived from the enjoyment of private property. These values were instilled into him during his youth, while working on the family farm, before his family moved to the city of Medellín, so that Alvaro, the oldest son, could receive the best possible education. He was born in 1952, while Colombia was in the throes of La Violencia, which cost 300,000 lives. The conflict diminished during his childhood and adolescence, as Medellín boomed. But in 1983 he experienced the nightmare of so many Colombian families. His father, visiting one of his cattle ranches in Yolombó, two hours from Medellín by car, was assassinated by the FARC when he resisted a kidnapping attempt.
Uribe has never lost his vocation as a cattle-rancher and his love for horses. He has a farmer's view of the world and of Colombia. While he is not the biggest cattle rancher in Colombia, he is no small fry either. On his farm El Ubérrimo, located in northeast Montería county, capital of Córdoba state, and Colombia's paramilitary capital, Uribe has 1,000 head of cattle and 60 purebred horses. In extensive cattle ranching, Uribe ranks as one of the 2,300 Colombians owning farms larger than 2,000 hectares, and who collectively control some 40 million hectares. This is in contrast with the 2.5 million smallholders in Colombia who own less than 5 hectares, who account for only 4.5 million hectares.
This concentration of land ownership, one of the highest anywhere, according to the World Bank, has increased in the past decade. This is due to insecurity, and the de facto power of guerillas, paramilitaries, drug traffickers and political patronage in regions like Córdoba.
The good news in Córdoba is that Carlos Castaño has resigned from his position as national leader of the Colombian paramilitary organization, in order to stay in his Córdoba base. Observers of Colombian paramilitarism had predicted this turn of events. In the variegated mosaic of Colombian regions and micro-regions, it is very difficult to maintain a unified command for any length of time. Fragmentation rules. This leads us to the final point of this commentary.
Apart from institutional modernization, Uribe has taken on the task of overcoming the military ascent of the guerillas. We must examine how and why these organizations, and especially the FARC, have maintained a unified command. It is useless to call them terrorists, bandits or kidnappers. They may be all of these things at the same time. But, as enemies of the Colombian government, they have built a web of organizational and communication links that could not operate in a social and political vacuum. They are politically involved at a local level, yet coordinated nationally in a way that not even the fragile Colombian state has been able to decipher. Their operation surpasses what we may want to attribute to a mere criminal gang. The struggle for local power launched by the FARC long ago has made the cattle-ranching class that President Uribe and his family belong to their main antagonist. The traditional oligarchic enemy, for example, the wealthy bankers of Bogotá, have been relegated to an abstraction in the guerilla's manual. In the development of this armed struggle, it was inevitable that the paramilitaries would appear and that the civilian population would be caught defenseless in the crossfire.
A devoted horseman, the new president has declared, "The horse demands that one must discipline oneself in order to maintain balance, before one can think of disciplining the horse. A horse accepts neither cajoling nor mistreatment; it demands balance. Government demands the same thing."
One can only hope that Uribe maintains this sense of balance when he studies his options for confronting the guerillas politically, ideologically and militarily. For now, he remains committed to stale formulas of counter-insurgency strategy. The "war on terrorism," as it is now called, just like the "war on drugs," is doomed to sow more disorder, illegitimacy and misery, always to the detriment of political freedoms, though always in their name.