BOGOTÁ, Colombia -- Álvaro Uribe was 7 years old when he announced to his family that he intended to become president of Colombia. Fifty years later, in the eyes of many, he is the man who rescued his beleaguered nation from collapse.
There is little doubt that he saved Colombia. Hard-line, right of center, tough, uncompromising (or so was his image), he ended chaos long enough, despite factors including Ingrid Betancourt's ill-advised grandstanding, to drag the country back to some level of normalcy.
When he was inaugurated in 2002, Latin America's oldest and largest Communist insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was strong enough to lob mortars at the presidential palace during the ceremony. Right-wing paramilitary groups were rampaging through the countryside killing suspected rebel supporters. Mr. Uribe soon put the FARC on the run, and consequently persuaded the paramilitaries to disarm. The dividend for his countrymen: an economic boom.
Andres Pastrana had ceded land the size, it is always stated so, of Switzerland; just how large that is never gets stated (it is 1,852 km). The FARC was running free, unafraid, ambitious, optimistic. Uribe changed all that. And he managed to make progress in stopping right-wing paramilitary groups, another important step in normalizing the country.
The rebels instead used [the land Pastrana gave them] as a base to carry out kidnappings and attacks. Mr. Uribe, convinced that neither major political party would end the conflict, returned to Colombia and announced a third-party candidacy based on waging war against the rebels. Early polls gave him just 2% of the vote.
But the FARC lost support from ordinary Colombians as it sabotaged electricity pylons, bombed a Bogotá restaurant, killing a 5-year-old girl, and tried to blow up the main reservoir supplying water to the capital. The group kidnapped female presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. With each incident, Mr. Uribe's poll numbers climbed. On May 26, 2002, he won 53% of the vote in a crowded field -- a landslide.
"He recognized early on that Colombia's basic need was security and authority," says Malcolm Deas, Mr. Uribe's professor at Oxford and a staunch supporter.
The fact that Betancourt walked into the hands of the FARC, going to negotiate with them with very little personal protection during the presidential campaign, clearly a rash act that she trusted would enhance her image but instead backfired and landed her a prisoner, is never mentioned. Never. Now that she has been rescued her secular sainthood is fully in place.
The new president wasted no time going after the guerrillas. He persuaded Congress to pass an emergency tax hike on businesses to boost military spending. Andres Peñate, then deputy defense minister, recalls that Mr. Uribe called him one day and asked how many people had been kidnapped in Colombia the previous week. Mr. Peñate said he didn't know. Mr. Uribe told him seven. "Do you want to know their names?" the president asked. Mr. Peñate says he made sure he knew the answer from then on.
Colombia was a basket case, a laughing-stock, a tragedy. I cried for the country of my birth; it was a disaster.
Critics say Mr. Uribe's fixation on eliminating the FARC has caused him to neglect longstanding problems of inequality, land distribution and poor infrastructure. Colombia's highways, for instance, remain in terrible shape. Many Colombians blamed the president for not keeping a closer eye on financial pyramid schemes that collapsed last month and have left tens of thousands of Colombians in the lurch.
Giant Ponzi schemes that lost much money for many people.
His intervention in the economy has also drawn criticism. He has given tax breaks to encourage certain industries, and has raised various tariffs to offer trade protection. "He is very sure of himself, which is a great thing for battling the guerrillas, but is not so good if you have some unorthodox ideas about the economy," says Mr. Perry, the former World Bank economist.
That's Guillermo Perry, former Chief Economist of the Latin America and Caribbean region of the World Bank, who served in Colombian government positions, and now with the Center for Global Development, who also said: "If he had quit at the end of his first term, he would have been a national hero with no questions asked; If he quits at the end of his second term, he'll still be a national hero, but with some questions. If he keeps going, he risks not being seen as a national hero."
Seems a fairly good assessment. Uribe has indeed reached the point where he judges himself as being indispensable, that is, that the nation can not survive without him, which is really an unquenchable taste for power. That is a common disease.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, an anti-American crusader, recently announced that he wants to stay in power indefinitely. The prospect that Mr. Uribe is moving in a similar direction could emerge as a foreign-policy headache for President-elect Barack Obama. Mr. Uribe, who can recite the Gettysburg Address by heart, has been the most steadfast U.S. ally in Latin America, and has received considerable U.S. backing. A conservative, he has preached democratic values and offers a regional counterweight to the man in Caracas.
The man in Caracas seems a curious way to refer to Chavez. Nonetheless, it is true that Chavez hardly is a paragon of democracy.
Mr. Uribe hasn't gutted democratic institutions as Mr. Chávez has. But he hasn't groomed any successor, and his administration is largely a one-man show. He micromanages the country to such an extent that he even checks the bathroom stalls of provincial airports when he arrives on state business. Critics say he cannot tolerate dissent. "He represents an old feature of Latin America, but something new to Colombia -- an authoritarian, a caudillo," says César Gaviria, a former president.
I am not an expert on Colombian history, but I do wonder if Rojas Pinilla does not qualify as a Colombian caudillo. And authoritarians Colombia has had: if one looks at the two-party dictatorship, er, arrangement of sharing of power that the Liberal and Conservative parties had in place for decades (and which Rojas merely interrupted), while not enforced by military might in the way of Peron and Castro, say, nonetheless was hardly openly democratic.
And I can not shake the image of the President of the Republic checking bathrooms; that is really micromanaging.
"A third term doesn't set a good precedent, particularly when you have neighbors like Chávez trying to do the same thing," says a U.S. administration official.
The irony is palpable, Uribe a purported democrat, and Chavez, a self-admitted strong ruler who disdains bourgeois democracy, both vying to extend their terms in office and continue their holds on power.
There are two sides to Mr. Uribe. He is a technocrat who studied at Harvard and Oxford and works on his English by watching the BBC every morning as he rides his stationary bike. In 2005, Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive officer of General Electric Co., visited Colombia after hearing about its turnaround under Mr. Uribe. After a two-hour meeting with the president, Mr. Immelt told associates: "Now that is a chief executive."
One wonders if even for just a moment Immelt thought wistfully of being able to exercise such power on the corporate level.
The other side comes from being raised in a rural culture of powerful landowners, horses and guns. Mr. Uribe sometimes views the world in black and white, such as in his treatment of Carlos Lozano, who edits the weekly Communist Party newspaper La Voz. On several occasions, Mr. Uribe has publicly attacked the editor as a FARC supporter -- dangerous words in a nation where right-wing death squads have killed thousands of leftists. After each outburst, says Mr. Lozano, Vice President Santos "calls to say the president lost his temper, is sorry about what he said, and is increasing my bodyguards and the strength of the bulletproofing on my car." Mr. Santos confirmed that account.
To attack an opponent as a FARC supporter is to mark him with a target whose bull's eye a right-wing paramilitary could wish to aim for; it is irresponsible.
His rural roots gave him a fresh perspective on Colombia's troubles. For decades, the country was ruled by an elite clique, mostly from Bogotá, that sometimes seemed indifferent to the violence raging in the countryside and unsure how to solve it. "The guerrillas weren't challenged by society the way they should have been," Mr. Uribe said in the June interview. "And that let them think they could simply take power through violent means."
That is a very perceptive point: the urban elite ignored the countryside, both the campesinos and the guerrileros earning their disdain. They almost lost the country with such hubris.
In October, the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch issued a report criticizing the Uribe administration for hampering the Supreme Court's investigation into the para-politics scandal. Mr. Uribe responded by calling José Miguel Vivanco, the group's director for the Americas, an "accomplice" and "defender" of the FARC.
Irresponsible for a president to speak that way, plain and simple.
After a similar incident last year, Mr. Uribe received a letter from 11 U.S. senators upbraiding him for his record of "inappropriate statements" against human-rights defenders, journalists, judges and others. Among the senators who signed: Mr. Obama. Ultimately, whether Mr. Uribe runs again may not be up to him. Polls in the past month have shown a marked dip in his popularity. Two weeks ago, Colombia's lower house passed a bill barring Mr. Uribe from a third term. His supporters immediately said they would try to amend it in the Senate to keep his re-election hopes alive.