A President's Chance to Improve Colombia

(International Relations and Security Network, 22/06/2006)


Alvaro Uribe's re-election has guaranteed him a spot in history. He is the first Colombian president to serve two consecutive terms. Winning in the first round of voting, Uribe received a strong mandate, selected by over 60 percent of those who voted. Colombians believe Uribe can deliver more security to Colombia, but it is not clear if in four years he can enact dramatic improvements in Colombia's perennially worrisome security situation.


Notable security achievements from Uribe's last term include bringing Colombia's "other" revolutionary group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), to the negotiating table. Current talks underway in Cuba began last December and are in a third round, which indicates at the very least that there has been some progress.


More controversial, however, is the Justice and Peace law that created the legal framework around Colombia's paramilitary disarmament process. In truth thousands of paramilitary soldiers have disarmed and entered into a demobilization and reintegration program, which looks good on paper but is lacking in practice, primarily due to funding issues.


As months dwindled to weeks before the Colombian presidential elections, an increase in attacks from Colombia's primary revolutionary group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), picked up in areas that Uribe had targeted for increased security, namely the Putumayo, Narino, and Meta departments.


The FARC's strategy was to use an increase in attacks to prove to the Colombian voting public that Uribe had not brought more security to the country. While the FARC did not prevent Uribe's re-election, they may have scared many Colombians from traveling to voting centers around the country.


The infamous paramilitary disarmament process, upon close scrutiny, was revealed by Colombian and international press as a hollow process whereby paramilitary chieftains were able to trade in some of their soldiers for protection, under Colombian law, from extradition to the US. Extraditions requests are ongoing, with the US maintaining pressure to extradite what the US Department of State identifies as Colombian narco-terrorists.


At the same time, paramilitary chieftains, especially in the northeastern departments and border areas with Venezuela, have strengthened their grip on the control of political systems at the municipal and departmental level. Paramilitary involvement in Colombian politics, especially the paramilitaries' implied involvement in President Uribe's political coalition indicates the disarmament process may have led to, more than anything else, the increased participation of paramilitary chieftains in Colombian politics.


And so with a questionable security record, President Uribe moves into his next term of office. Just two days after his election on 30 May, Uribe made an offer to explore peace with the FARC. It is quite clear that Uribe would benefit politically from engaging the FARC across the negotiating table rather than down the barrel of a gun. But is hard to see what the FARC could possibly win from such efforts. Nor is it clear that the FARC is in a talking mood.


Yet Uribe's intentions may at least be honest. He recently met with Alvaro Leva, who is known in Colombia as one of the few politicians that actually corresponds regularly with the FARC leadership secretariat. It is highly likely the conversation focused on ways the Uribe administration could coerce the FARC into peace talks.


Meanwhile, the FARC has made public its disappointment with the ELN. For years, analysts have believed that the ELN and the FARC were working in concert to produce and export Colombian cocaine to the US market. The ELN's decision to begin peace talks with the Uribe administration put a strain on FARC-ELN relations.


The truce formally broke on 11 June when the FARC issued a statement that declared an official split between the FARC and the ELN. This announcement followed violence between the two groups in Colombia's Arauca department on the border with Venezuela. Colombian authorities tabled the possibility that the two groups are battling over smuggling routes into Venezuela.


Since paramilitary chieftain Victor Mejia disarmed his group in Arauca, a security vacuum left in the countryside has been filled by the ELN, which has traditionally been strong in Arauca. Now, it is possible the FARC is seeking to move in on this territory, opening another smuggling route out of Colombia.


Alleged links between the FARC and Venezuela's National Guard further strengthen the belief that certain units within the FARC have begun to focus more on exporting cocaine through Venezuela.

Looking ahead, Uribe has three primary responsibilities.


First, he must work to go beyond statements and rhetoric and actually increase security in Colombia's rural cities and towns. On 5 June, Uribe announced he would add 40,000 police officers to the payroll to boost security in rural areas. However, it is unclear if an increased police presence would deter the FARC or paramilitaries entrenched in their respective cities, towns, and encampments.


Second, Uribe must work to manage the Colombian economy vis-à-vis the country's regional leadership role. A fresh free trade agreement with the US certainly helps, but Uribe must look beyond his relationship with Washington and focus on Colombia's leadership role in a struggling Andean environment where trade and security issues have threatened to dissolve the Andean Community of Nations (CAN).


Finally, Alvaro Uribe must work to lift Colombians from poverty, marginalization, and misery. It is quite clear that focusing on a hard-handed, military strategy to protect Colombians is not the best solution. Of all the policy options available, one that integrates a prudent level of military and police force with pragmatic economic packages and simple job stimulation will put Uribe on a path to success.


As a historical president in Colombia and South America, Uribe has an opportunity to introduce creative policy options that make a departure from stagnated and failed policies such as fumigation and direct military confrontation. Uribe owes it to his constituency to give them better in this term than the last. What remains to be seen is if Uribe follows through on making Colombia truly a better place to live or presides over another four years of mediocre administration.

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