The Successes and Failures of President Uribe

By · November 28, 2005 · Save & Share

Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe has officially announced that he will run for a second term. During his first three years in office, the U.S. government and the mainstream media have repeatedly touted the successes achieved by the Colombian leader’s Democratic Security and Defense Strategy. But there are several important questions related to these claims that immediately come to mind. For example, does achieving a reduction in kidnapping and criminal violence justify state repression against those sectors of civil society critical of the government’s policies? Or, what percentage of Colombians have benefited from the country’s recent economic growth? And do the government’s social and economic policies reflect the desires of the Colombian people? With the announcement of his candidacy for the May 2006 election, it is time to look at the most prominent successes and failures of President Uribe in three key areas: security and human rights, the civil conflict, and the economy.

Security and Human Rights

Successes: President Uribe’s security strategy has achieved a 51 percent decrease in kidnappings from 2,986 in 2002 to 1,441 in 2004. It has also resulted in a 30 percent decline in homicides over the same period. Additionally, according to the Human Rights and Displacement Consultancy (CODHES), Uribe’s first year in office saw a reduction in the number of Colombians forcibly displaced from 412,553 in 2002 to 207,607 in 2003.

Failures: The reduction in kidnappings has been partly offset by an increase in extortions as criminals have changed tactics. Instead of kidnapping a person and holding them for ransom, criminals now simply give a targeted individual a date by which to make an extortion payment or they will be killed. According to the Bogotá-based Fundación País Libre, there were 2,271 extortions reported in 2003, which represented a 22 percent increase over the previous year.

A reduction in violence related to common crime accounts for the decline in homicides under Uribe. According to the human rights group Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), the number of killings related to the civil conflict remains unchanged. For example, 6,978 people were killed for socio-political reasons during Uribe’s first year in office, which amounted to 19 people a day, the same rate as the previous two years. The CCJ determined that paramilitaries were responsible for at least 62 per cent of the killings, more than double the amount committed by the guerrillas.

While the number of people forcibly displaced declined in 2003, it increased by 38 per cent in 2004 to 287,581—an average of 780 people per day. Furthermore, according to the Association of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared (ASFADDES), 3,593 people were forcibly “disappeared” during 2002 and 2003. This figure is more than the number of people disappeared in the previous seven years combined and more than the total number of people disappeared during General Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship in Chile. According to the United Nations, paramilitaries and state security forces are responsible for most of the forced disappearances in Colombia.

The United Nations claims that the state’s direct role in the country’s human rights violations has escalated under Uribe. In August 2003, for example, Colombian troops from the base housing U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers in Saravena, Arauca, entered the home of three union leaders in the middle of the night and executed them. The United Nations has also highlighted the increase in arbitrary detentions and mass arrests under the Uribe government. The director of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Colombia, Michael Frühling, announced that his office “has noted with concern that illegal or arbitrary detentions constitute, both in number and frequency, one of the most worrying violations of human rights reported in the country.” Frühling further noted that the UN “is also concerned that mass-scale detentions and individual seizures with no juridical basis frequently affect members of vulnerable groups such as human rights advocates, community leaders, trade union activists and people living in areas where illegal armed groups are active.”

In September 2003, President Uribe illustrated his intolerance of those critical of his policies when he accused 80 Colombian NGOs, including the country’s largest and most reputable, of “politicking at the service of terrorism.” The Colombian president directly linked human rights groups to the guerrillas when he declared: “Every time a security policy is carried out in Colombia to defeat terrorism, when terrorists start feeling weak, they immediately send their spokesmen to talk about human rights.”

Conclusions: Middle and upper class citizens are the primary benefacters of the reduction in kidnappings, while being adversely affected by the increase in extortions. Colombians of all classes, particularly in urban areas, have benefited from the reduction in violent crime, while there has been little change in the levels of political violence related to the civil conflict being waged primarily in rural regions. Forced displacement, disappearance, arbitrary detentions and mass arrests have mostly affected poor Colombians and those who dare to criticize the government’s security and economic policies. Ultimately, Uribe has improved security for many Colombians, which has translated into high approval ratings. However, he has achieved this by not only targeting the country’s guerrillas, but by also utilizing repression against those sectors of civil society critical of his policies.

The Civil Conflict

Successes: Under Uribe, the Colombian military has increased in size from 158,000 to 207,000 active-duty personnel. Additionally, the Colombian National Police has increased from 97,000 to 121,000 members. As a result, state security forces have expanded their presence throughout Colombia. The Colombian National Police has established a presence in all 1,098 municipalities for the first time in the country’s history.

President Uribe’s security policies achieved a significant reduction in guerrilla attacks against the country’s infrastructure between 2002 and 2004. For example, attacks against electricity pylons were reduced by 74 percent—from 483 in 2002 to 121 in 2004.

As a result of the government’s negotiations with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and the passage of the Peace and Justice Law in June 2005, some 10,000 paramilitaries have officially demobilized.

Failures: According to the Bogotá-based defense think tank Fundación Seguridad y Democracia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) launched more attacks against the Colombian military during Uribe’s first two years in office than during any two-year period under former president Andrés Pastrana. In fact, the FARC attacked Colombia’s security forces an average of twice a day in 2004. During the first six months of 2005, the FARC launched large-scale assaults against military bases and convoys in the departments of Antioquia, Arauca, North Santander, Putumayo and Nariño. The attacks left more than 200 soldiers dead and led to the resignation of Colombia’s Minister of Defense Jorge Alberto Uribe—no relation to President Uribe.

While the National Police now maintain a presence in all of Colombia’s 1,098 municipalities, in most rural municipalities this presence only consists of a small detachment in the town that serves as the municipal seat. Most small towns and villages in municipalities in Caquetá, Putumayo, Meta, Arauca, Chocó and other remote regions still have no police presence.

Paramilitary leaders responsible for crimes against humanity who demobilize under the Peace and Justice Law will serve as little as 22 months in jail. There are also no guarantees that paramilitary leaders will dismantle their drug trafficking networks when they demobilize. Consequently, the Peace and Justice Law provides little justice for the thousands of victims of paramilitary violence.

According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), paramilitaries who were allegedly participating in a cease-fire killed more than 2,000 civilians at the same time they were engaged in the demobilization talks. Furthermore, many of the 10,000 demobilized paramilitaries have not really demobilized. The government is planning to use 2,000 “demobilized” paramilitaries as a security force to guard the nation’s infrastructure from rebel attacks. Also, the November 2003 “demobilization” of the AUC’s Cacique Nutibara Bloc in Medellín did not end that group’s paramilitary activities in Colombia’s second-largest city. According to Amnesty International, two years after their demobilization:

Paramilitaries continue to operate as a military force, to kill and threaten human rights defenders and local community activists, to recruit and to act jointly with the security forces. However, rather than operating in large, heavily-armed and uniformed groups as they did in the past, they are now increasingly cloaking their activities by posing as members of private security firms or by acting as informants for the security forces.

Conclusions: The strengthening of the military and the use of more agressive tactics has allowed the state to expand its presence to more regions of the country, thereby providing additional security to certain sectors of the civilian population while simultaneously targeting others. While Uribe’s security policies have achieved some successes against the guerrillas, the FARC’s continued attacks against military targets illustrate that the rebel group’s military capacities have not been significantly affected. Meanwhile, the demobilization process ultimately threatens to become little more than a restructuring of the paramilitaries, allowing them to maintain their criminal networks and to continue targeting members of civil society peacefully struggling to achieve social justice.

The Economy

Successes: The economy grew 4.02 percent in 2003 and 3.96 percent in 2004, the highest back-to-back annual rates in a decade. At the same time, unemployment fell from 14.2 percent in 2003 to 13.6 percent in 2004. Under Uribe, Colombia has implemented neoliberal, or “free trade,” economic reforms in order to attract foreign investment. According to the World Bank, Colombia was the world’s second-most successful investment climate reformer in 2004, due in part to deregulation and an increase in the flexibility of labor laws. In fact, in 2004, foreign investment increased by an impressive 66 percent over the previous year.

Failures: Despite respectable economic growth and increased foreign investment in 2003 and 2004, poverty levels remain the same with 64 percent of Colombians living in poverty—85 percent of the rural population. Also, part of the 0.6 percent decline in unemployment from 2003 to 2004 was a result of the recruitment of 73,000 citizens into the state security forces—many of them poor Colombians drafted into the military.

Flexible labor laws resulting from neoliberal reforms have resulted in a decrease in permanent, full-time, unionized jobs and a corresponding increase in temporary positions that lack security and benefits. Furthermore, workers in the informal economy continue to constitute more than 50 percent of the country’s workforce, many of them earning below minimum wage and receiving no benefits.

Colombia’s foreign debt increased from $37.3 billion in 2002 to $38.2 billion in 2003—49.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Meanwhile, the government’s share of the country’s resource-wealth has declined because neoliberal reforms enacted by Uribe now allow foreign oil companies to operate without entering into partnership with the state oil company Ecopetrol. As a result, foreign companies now retain ownership of 100 percent of the oil they extract—previously Ecopetrol received 30 percent of the oil—and pay a royalty rate of only eight percent per barrel. By comparison, oil companies operating in Alaska pay 25 percent in royalties to the U.S. government.

While Uribe maintains high approval ratings for his hardline policies against the guerrillas, Colombians are not as supportive of his economic policies. An October poll revealed that 43 percent of Colombians oppose Uribe’s plans to sign a free trade agreement with the United States, while only 38 percent support it. Another poll conducted in January 2005 also reflected the frustrations felt by Colombians with regard to the government’s handling of the economy. The poll asked, “As a Colombian, what are you fed up with?” Fifty-eight percent of respondents pointed to the country’s unemployment as their prime concern.

Conclusions: Neoliberal reforms have benefited the country’s economic elite and multinational companies that have prospered from the establishment of favorable investment conditions and flexible labor regulations. Meanwhile, with few new jobs created and no reduction in poverty, it is apparent that the wealth generated by the country’s economic growth has been unequally distributed. As a result, Colombia has maintained its ranking in the UN’s Gini index as the country with the 10th most unequal distribution of wealth in the world. Furthermore, according to the UNDP’s Human Development Index, which measures the average citizen’s quality of life, Colombia dropped five places between 2003 and 2005 from 64th to 69th among the 177 countries ranked.

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