International Papers

No Velvet Glove for Colombia’s “Firm Hand”

Álvaro Uribe’s triumph in Colombia’s presidential election Sunday was widely interpreted as a mandate to crack down on guerrilla and paramilitary violence. His unprecedented margin of victory—by taking 53 percent of the votes, 22 percent more than his closest rival, Uribe eliminated the need for a second-round run-off—was remarkable for a politician who only months ago was seen as a long-shot candidate. According to Colombia’s El Espectador, he was running a distant third in November, but as violence and lawlessness increased and the peace process between the government and FARC guerrillas broke down, voters were drawn to Uribe, who ran on the slogan “Firm hand, big heart.” Uribe’s father was murdered by FARC in 1983 during a botched kidnapping, and the president-elect has survived 15 assassination attempts—including one in April that kept him off the campaign trail in the month leading up to the election.

His campaign platform (check out his 100-point program on El Espectador’s Web site) includes plans to recruit thousands of extra soldiers and police, double the defense budget, increase U.S. involvement in quelling Colombia’s civil unrest, and most controversially to recruit up to 1 million civilian informers. According to the Guardian, “Equipped with radios and motorcycles, they will monitor guerrilla activity and report any suspicious activity to the authorities.” But, as the Guardian pointed out, “Human rights monitors fear that the scheme will draw civilians further into the violence, and could breed a new generation of paramilitary death squads.”

El Tiempo of Bogotá—which will be in a tricky position during Uribe’s administration since his vice president is a former El Tiempo staffer—wondered where Uribe would find the money to fund his ambitious plans. (It offered no answers beyond vague hopes that the “international community” would come through.) Clarín of Argentina reported that 64 percent of Colombians currently live in poverty, 23 percent of them in “extreme poverty,” surviving on less than $1 per day. Spain’s El Mundo reminded Colombians not to concentrate on security to the exclusion of all other issues: “Just as important as the struggle against the guerrillas is the war on poverty; there are many as 2 million children and adolescents with no education and no future and 1 million political refugees [in Colombia].”

El País of Cali said Uribe’s consistent and coherent position on security tipped the scales in his favor, but it identified eight other reasons for his triumph, including: the breakdown of party politics (a former leader of the Liberals, Uribe split from the party and ran as an independent), political goofs by his opponents, his skillful use of the media (especially important since he was unable to attend campaign rallies), and a widespread desire to avoid a second round of voting.

Several papers noted that the president-elect, who studied at Harvard and Oxford, is somewhat lacking in charisma. The Financial Times described him as “an earnest, bookish provincial governor” with no sense of humor, and Britain’s Daily Telegraph observed, “Uribe does not dance, a rarity in a nation where salsa is taught before walking, but he is a man of iron discipline (he is up at five doing yoga every morning), with a sense of duty, say aides, last seen in 19th century Britain.” Colombia’s El País said that his “extreme seriousness” was a point in his favor: At a time of political crisis, voters want a policy wonk in the presidential palace.