A Third Term in Office? Entrenching Colombian Authoritarianism

Colombia has been known for having one of the most stable democracies of the subcontinent which, while it has not undergone the dictatorships that other countries have suffered, is not very ‘inclusive’. There has been considerable progress in terms of civil, political, social and cultural rights, which were consecrated in the 1991 constitution, but they are threatened by the new right in power. The present government has proved to be strongly authoritarian, which not only tends to eliminate the opposition but to ‘de-institutionalize’ democracy, relying on the charisma of the president.1

Over the past decade, a well-documented rise in support for the electoral-left has occurred in a majority of countries throughout Latin America. Even in a country such as Colombia, the presidential elections of 2006 saw magnetic results for the left-of-centre Alternative Democratic Pole (POLO Democrático Alternativo) under the leadership of Carlos Gaviria Díaz. The POLO received over twenty-two percent of the national vote, a sixteen percent increase from Luis Eduardo Grazon’s 2002 run as a representative for the former Independent Democratic Pole (Polo Democrático Independiente). When the official poles closed, the POLO had more than doubled the votes that the historically influential Colombian Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Colombiano, PLC) had obtained, thus becoming the second most supported political coalition in the country after President Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s Social National Unity Party (Partido Social de Unidad Nacional, Partido de la ‘U’). Nevertheless, amidst a regional movement attempting to distance itself from neoliberalism and un-relinquished US-acceptance, Colombia has seen its ruling political establishment increasingly entrench right-of-centre, if not far-right, reactionary policies to internal and regional political-economic change. The Right’s ‘stabilization,’ however, cannot be seen within the classical confines of twentieth century authoritarian rule via military dictator as the civilian-based Uribe administration enjoys broad popular support. Left with this circumstance, it is important to analyze what has enabled this government to sustain political office, policy, and its fervent measures of internal security?

Several times a year Colombians are exposed to national popularity polls which attempt to gauge levels of support for the state and specifically the Uribe administration. It is assumed that these surveys offer a representation of faith in the government and military, while providing the international community an apparent picture of stability within the country. Over the years these polls have repeatedly showed Uribe’s approval rating to be well above the seventy percentile during his first term [2002-2006] and floating between the mid-eighties and low-nineties half way through the second [2006-2010]. Such endorsements have led some to argue that Uribe garnishes the highest level of support of any president in the Americas today. With this broad backing, posturing has begun to again alter the Colombian constitution so that the president may run for head of state a third time. In August, five million petitions were delivered to election officials supporting an amendment to the constitution which would make Uribe an eligible candidate. As this details extensive support for the president, the context to which Colombia finds itself politically, socially, and economically is quite perplexing. In actuality, Uribe’s power and apparent stability is incredibly unique (and somewhat puzzling) when considering a variety of factors that could otherwise create an environment of distrust and political opposition if not hostility for any Latin American politician sitting in office.

Aside from standing at the top of the world’s list for highest rates of homicide and kidnapping, Colombia reluctantly shares the title of being one of the most economically inequitable countries in the Western Hemisphere. The Andean nation is also second only to the Sudan for the largest number of internally displaced peoples in the world. According to data presented by the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento, CODHES), roughly ten percent of Colombians have been forced from their homes and communities due to threats from paramilitary and state forces. Alongside these deplorable conditions has been Colombia’s on-going ‘parapolitica’ scandal. Since 2006, upwards of eighty governors, mayors, military officials, and congressional politicians have been alleged or found guilty for having direct connections, meetings, and/or contracts with Colombia’s most notorious paramilitary organization – the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC). During said collaborations hundreds if not thousands of oppositional political opponents, trade-unionists, and community organizers became targets for assassination, were threatened, and/or disappeared. As a result of testimony from former paramilitary leaders, who admitted links with said politicians, countless bodies have been found in mass-graves reminiscent of those discovered in Germany during the twentieth century. Included in this scandal are Colombia’s Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderón, his cousin Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos, President Uribe’s brother Santiago and their cousin former-Senator Mario Uribe, Senator Carlos García Orjuela the president of Partido de la ‘U’, three brothers and the step-son of Colombia’s Attorney General Eduardo Maya Villazón, and the list goes on. It has even been alleged that secret meetings of paramilitary forces transpired at the president’s personal farm ‘Guacharacas’. The information citing those implicated in the scandal has however come from surprising sources. Rather than opponents to the Uribe administration making statements of state-paramilitary activity, the majority of revelations have come from long-time supporters of the current administration.

Salvatore Mancuso, the last leader of the AUC and one-time neighbour of Uribe, provided a great deal of information related to the Colombian state’s systemic involvement with paramilitaries over the past fifteen years. The informal leading commander of the AUC after 2001 and its formal leader upon the murder of Carlos Castaño in 2004 revealed that the actual number of sitting politicians linked to paramilitaries rests well above those that have been investigated, detained, or sentenced. Citing state officials alone, Mancuso noted that roughly one-hundred paramilitary proxies exist in the Colombian establishment. As links between the AUC and Uribe became ever clearer in 2008, the president had the primary leaders and whistle blowers of the AUC extradited to solitary confinement in the United States where interviews (and confessions) would be difficult. Journalist Matthew Thompson wrote that "such testimony and Mancuso’s explosive political revelations were aborted near midnight on May 12, when, without warning, Mr Uribe had the AUC commander and 13 high-level colleagues plucked from detention on the outskirts of Medellin and extradited to the US". While responsible for the deaths of thousands, if not tens of thousands, Mancuso provides an excellent example of how the state, without hesitation or reprisal, simply uses its power to silence any and all who reveal the contradictions of Colombia’s political institutions. However, Uribe’s measures of silencing are not limited to those whom directly committed the crimes themselves. While it can be argued whether or not Mancuso and Uribe were once allies – even though such debates are becoming less and less difficult to ascertain – the president has, in fact, sanctioned allies within the political structure itself.

Earlier this year Colombia’s Supreme Court and Uribe went head to head concerning amendments made to the constitution which enabled the president to run for a second term in 2006. After a thorough investigation, Court officials ruled that "the initiative to amend the constitution was flawed by criminal acts". The primary basis of this claim was that various government ministers, including Uribe, bribed former congresswoman Yidis Medina to vote in favour of legislation empowering the president to run for re-election. As it increasingly appeared as though a congressional tie may occur on whether to allow Uribe to run for office a second time, Medina was approached and was promised a series of lucrative jobs and contracts for her vote. In April, Medina turned herself in, confessed, and provided evidence that of such a campaign and her involvement therein. For accepting the bribe and following through with the vote Medina was sentenced to forty-seven months in prison. In June, Uribe responded to the Supreme Court’s investigation and report on the illegalities concerning the 2006 re-election. The president announced that a referendum would be held in 2009 permitting Colombians to facilitate a repeat of the 2006 election. While a referendum most assuredly delegitimizes the credibility and findings of the Supreme Court, it would nevertheless provide Uribe with some image of legitimacy. However, Uribistas soon calculated that rather than supporting a referendum in 2009 a push could be made to negate the constitution once more, allowing Uribe to seek a second re-election. By July, the moral call for the referendum was reneged thereby permitting Uribe and the Partido de la ‘U’ to dismiss the Supreme Court’s legitimacy, bypass a provisional election, broaden formal challenges to Colombia’s judiciary, and further modify elitist protectionist measures within the constitution.

Uribe’s attack has not ceased. Apart from physically silencing the AUC’s leadership, Uribe has proposed a series of amendments to the Colombian constitution that would relinquish various powers related to the country’s Supreme Court and the capacity to investigate existing congressional politicians and state officials connected to the parapolitica. Essentially, the Court would become powerless in directly reviewing, hearing, or trying cases related to the scandal. If accepted, the Supreme Court would be restricted from any involvement in said cases other than through an appeal process. This clearly ensures political security for Uribistas while the president marginalizes the judiciary’s authority (over the current administration). Alongside such measures the president has increased his rhetoric by accusing officials of manipulating the judiciary and claiming it as a medium that seeks to demonize his legitimacy. Uribe and Senator Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez (under investigation for alleged links with the AUC) have tried to appropriate the Supreme Court’s operations related to the parapolitica by flipping the scandal on its head. Both have called on the Court to begin investigations against various oppositional party members, such as Senator Piedad Córdoba (PLC), Senator Gustavo Petro (POLO), and other critics of the Colombian Right, for allegedly pressuring persons involved in the scandal. Supreme Court Judge Iván Velásquez has too been slandered. Right-of-centre politicos defamed the court justice by accusing him of manoeuvring information and testimony connected to the parapolitica through bribery. Discussions of those involved in the prosecution have been surreptitiously taped. Juan Carlos Díaz Rayo, a former investigator for the Supreme Court, was secretly recorded discussing how some evidence related to certain officials connected to the scandal could be stronger. The state has also attempted to create a counter-scandal entitled ‘FARC-politica’ by the popular media. Important proponents and activists within the sphere of politics, labour, academics, and the progressive media have been targeted as members or associates of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP). This has greatly scarred and hampered the important work of noted activists, researchers, and internationally respected critics of the Colombian state. Being associated with the broadly-defined charge of ‘rebellion’ prevents support or actions of solidarity with said colleagues for threat of being linked to or seen as a guerrilla.

Rather than seeking truth and facilitating justice the Uribe administration and its ideological cohorts have clearly become preoccupied with silencing systemic corruption by targeting those who have spoken out or raised a spotlight on officials who have facilitated the death and disappearances of the country’s citizens. Uribe has shown his true colours as a leader within a regime that seeks to dispel democratic stability and integrity for the continuity of power and dominance. While not the only actor within the play of Colombian authoritarianism, Uribe, if ‘re-elected’ a second time, will most assuredly take Colombia down a road far from the rule of law but rather a tyranny secured by despotism.

1 Mauricio Archila (2007). "Democratizing ‘democracy’ in Colombia" in The State of Resistance: Popular struggles in the global south. François Polet (Ed.).London, UK: Zed Books. p.60.

James J. Brittain is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada and the co-founder of the Atlantic Canada-Colombia Research Group. He can be reached at james.brittain@acadiau.ca.