Just a three-hour plane ride from Miami, Colombia seems a distant, hostile land for most Americans. Marxist rebels declare U.S. officials here “military targets,” cocaine cartels work ceaselessly to meet America’s voracious appetite for the drug, and kidnappers salivate at the prospect of nabbing a rich American businessman. Yet Colombia’s government is the most pro-American in a region rife with anti-gringo sentiment, with a president who claims friendship with George W. Bush. It is this friendship that has Washington watching recent events in Bogotá so closely.
Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, wants to change his country’s constitution to allow another term. Uribe, whose mandate ends in 2006, says he needs four more years to bring order to Colombia. Having cleared nearly all the hurdles to permit a second run, and facing no credible challengers, the question remains: Should he?
Both sides of the debate insist that nothing less than the country’s future is at stake. The president and his supporters say that all his achievements in improving the country’s security are at risk if he is not re-elected. Opponents, who range from hard-left radicals to crusty old conservatives, claim the change would remove one of the constitution’s biggest safeguards against presidential abuses of power and mark a terrible precedent.
While Americans are accustomed to two terms and Europeans to even longer stays in office, changing the constitution rubs a raw political nerve in Latin America. Following a succession of dictators and strongmen in the aftermath of independence from the Spanish crown, almost all Latin American nations prohibited second terms in order to limit the damage a bad ruler could cause. With the wisdom of the oracles, the writers of Latin America’s constitutions looked to their future presidents with more fear than hope.
The White House has done little to hide its support for Uribe’s re-election bid. Uribe is President Bush’s closest ally in the region, and Colombia is strategically crucial for the United States, which has spent more than $3 billion over the past five years to help combat the world’s largest cocaine industry. And it’s not just the drugs; Colombia also serves as the theater for the Latin war on terror, with three Colombian groups on Washington’s list of “foreign terrorist organizations.”
Governing Colombia is a thankless task. Violence, poverty, and civil war are so deeply ingrained and so widespread that it often seems that only a miracle could alleviate the country’s suffering. Still, Uribe’s call for a new Colombia governed by his “firm hand, large heart,” has inspired a boom in confidence as millions who only ever knew a country in conflict came to hope that things could change. Although the four-decade civil war rumbles on, Colombians have seen real improvements in their country’s security. By boosting the number of troops and police, Uribe has slashed the murder rate; the bloody extreme right-wing paramilitaries are holding—more or less—to a cease-fire as they talk peace with the government; kidnappings are plummeting; and a large offensive has put the Marxist rebels at least temporarily on the defensive.
The cooling of the civil war’s intensity has meant real changes in everyday life. Now the middle class swap tales of jaunts they’ve made into the countryside, trips that even two years ago would likely have ended in a kidnapping. Relatives who had fled abroad are now returning, reuniting fractured families. In 2002, Colombians of all races and all classes, from street sweepers to Cabinet ministers, took to wearing wristbands in the country’s colors as a sign of national unity. This optimism has translated into approval ratings of over 70 percent for the stern Harvard- and Oxford-educated president.
Uribe’s achievements stand in stark contrast to those of his presidential predecessors. Andrés Pastrana promised peace but ended as a punch line after giving much of the country to Marxist rebels as the basis for ultimately fruitless peace talks. Ernesto Samper left office in disgrace after it was revealed that the Cali cocaine cartel had bankrolled his election campaign.
Uribe’s character, rather than his ideology, has always been his selling point. He campaigned as a determined man of integrity who could be trusted to make the right decisions. Conscious of the national mood, politicians are lining up to proclaim their loyalty to the popular president, but this too is fealty to the man rather than a set of principles.
Talk of re-election came after Uribe’s largest political defeat so far, when his government narrowly lost a referendum he had campaigned tirelessly for. Among other things, it would have cut government spending and criminalized personal possession of drugs. With close to 20 different points in the referendum, the opposition was able to generate a mass abstention, and the government failed to drum up the 25 percent of voters needed to make the referendum’s results binding. Seeing this defeat, the congress responded coolly to the idea of changing the constitution to allow a second presidential term, but when Uribe threatened to bypass congress altogether, instead going to the Colombian people with another referendum, the congress’s roar of independence turned to a kitten’s squeak of acquiescence. Passing congress easily in December, the re-election bill is awaiting the constitutional court’s approval, and even opponents admit that the panel of judges will probably give Uribe the go-ahead.
The prospect of another election must seem tempting to Uribe, given the dearth of serious challengers. Come Election Day, the biggest threat will likely come from “no one.” Jaime Castro, a constitutional lawyer and former mayor of Bogotá, is trying to unite opposition to a second Uribe term around a blank vote. If more than 50 percent of votes cast are blank, a new round of voting is called for, with the original candidates barred from standing again.
On one front, though, Uribe is vulnerable. The economy is slowing, growing less than expected and well below the rate of Colombia’s neighbors. Colombia has Latin America’s third-largest population, but the fifth-largest economy. Unemployment remains stubbornly in the double digits, and over 60 percent of the population live on or below the poverty line. Uribe, focused on destroying Colombia’s violence, says that once the civil war and cocaine industry are quelled, investment will come streaming in. For all the improvements in security, Colombians have yet to see much change in their pockets.
Colombia’s debate over a second term reflects a larger struggle between a boundless optimism that says the age of poor rulers is over and that the nation can look forward to giving its leaders the time needed to make changes, and a world-weary pessimism that says the good is ephemeral but the bad lingers on. When Colombians go to the polls in 18 months, it seems likely that optimism will win out, saving pessimism’s return for a later date.