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COLOMBIA
Rightist wins presidency
Michael Easterbrook
5/30/2002
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The promise to end nearly four decades of civil conflict was the cornerstone of Alvaro Uribe’s victorious campaign.

Colombia’s President-elect Alvaro Uribe Vélez has vowed to strengthen security forces and restore order in a nation desperate for an end to decades of war.

 

Uribe, a tough-talking former governor, polled 53 percent in the May 26 election, beating his nearest opponent by more than 20 points.

Recalling the memory of his father, who was assassinated by guerrillas in 1983, Uribe told supporters on election night that he would seek international help to re-start talks with insurgents. During an emotion-filled speech in the capital, Bogotá, Uribe said he was making the offer so that the insurgents could participate in politics "without arms and without killing."

But the 49-year-old Uribe, who takes office on Aug. 7, demanded that the armed groups first declare a cease-fire and an end to hostilities, a goal that eluded President Andrés Pastrana during three years of negotiations with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that broke down at the end of February (LP, March 11, 2002).

"We will work for that dream, but please, there must be an unequivocal sign of respect, of affection, of relief for the Colombian people," said Uribe, promising Colombians "security so [armed groups] don’t kidnap the businessman, so they don’t assassinate the union leader, so they don’t extort the rancher, so they don’t displace the peasant."

Uribe’s margin of victory was widely interpreted as a mandate to crack down on leftist rebels. The 38-year civil war pits two main rebel groups against a paramilitary army and the government.

"The insurgents are trying to finish off the country with everything they’ve got," said 65-year-old Héctor Valderrama, after casting his ballot in the capital for Uribe. "They need to be shown someone who is not afraid to govern."

Yet as many Colombians celebrated Uribe’s victory, officials in human rights and peace groups feared for the worst.

"What this is going to do is prolong the armed confrontation even longer and place the country at the edge of a situation that is almost civil war and dissolution," said Jorge Rojas, director of the Bogotá-based Advisory Service for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), which works with the country’s surging internal refugee population.

Javier Moncayo, a peace activist in the town of Barrancabermeja in the department of Santander, predicted that the country would now be forced to endure more war before returning to the negotiating table.

"The problem is too big, the causes too complex, the history of violence too long to fix the thing with an authoritarian attitude," said Moncayo, subdirector of the Program for Development and Peace in the Magdalena Medio, which works in 29 townships in central Colombia to promote nonviolent solutions to the conflict.

Fighting in Colombia takes nearly 3,500 lives a year and has forced more than 1 million people to flee their homes in the past four years (LP, Aug. 21, 2000). Thousands more are kidnapped every year, and while the war was once fought largely in the countryside, there are now signs that it is moving to the cities.

As soldiers frisked voters for weapons and patrolled the streets, millions decided to stay home. Only about half of the 24 million people registered to vote in Colombia — a country of 41.5 million people — participated in the balloting.

Much of the campaigning was marred by intimidations and violence, with reports of paramilitary fighters threatening reprisals against those who did not vote for Uribe and rebels threatening to retaliate against those who did.

One of the candidates who appeared on the ballot, anti-establishment figure Ingrid Betancourt, was not even allowed to complete her campaign. Betancourt and her campaign manager were kidnapped in February by FARC fighters and have not been heard from since. She received less than 1 percent of the vote.

In April, four people were killed when a bomb allegedly detonated by rebels exploded near Uribe’s motorcade in the Caribbean coastal city of Barranquilla. Four-weeks later, two bombs tore through his campaign office in Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city. The violence forced Uribe to cut back on public appearances and address supporters via teleconferences and infomercials.

A breakaway candidate of the Liberal Party, Uribe began as a dark horse in the presidential race. But growing disillusionment with the rebels and Uribe’s tough talk convinced many Colombians to throw their support behind him at the expense of Liberal Party candidate Horacio Serpa.

Serpa finished with only 32 percent. Leftist candidate Luis Eduardo Garzón, whose running mate was Vera Grabe, a former rebel commander, finished third with 6 percent.

Most of the campaign was centered on the guerrillas and the failed peace attempts made by Pastrana, who was constitutionally barred from seeking a second term.

Pastrana launched peace negotiations with the FARC in January 1999 after ceding them a southern safe haven twice the size of El Salvador (LP, Jan. 18, 1999). But the two sides were never able to reach accords to reduce the fighting.

Uribe was a fierce critic of the peace talks and the safe haven, which he called a "paradise for criminals." From a distant third, Uribe surged into the lead in January as bombs were going off in Bogotá and vast regions of the country were enduring electrical blackouts from a rebel bombing campaign to cripple Colombia’s power grid.

With his slight build and clean-cut looks, Uribe does not cut an authoritarian figure. But the president-elect has promised to streamline government, seek more military aid from the United States, and double the size of the armed forces.

His most controversial proposal is to recruit 1 million civilians to monitor criminal and rebel activity for the government. Critics fear the civilian informants could become targets for the rebels or morph into paramilitary units.

The network of civilian security agents would be similar to the neighborhood watch groups Uribe championed while governor of Antioquia (1995-97). Human rights groups claim the short-lived groups helped fuel the rise of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), blamed for committing most of human rights violations in Colombia (LP, Dec. 3, 2001).

Even though the AUC claimed that a Uribe presidency would be the best for the country, Uribe has denied that he is tied to the groups and has said he will fight them as hard as he will the rebels.

But while Uribe has been questioned about his human rights record, he has also been praised for his administrative skills. As governor, he helped reduce crime in the province and trained thousands of social workers to teach conflict resolution courses.

During his victory speech, Uribe promised to revolutionize education, fight government corruption, and find help for the millions of Colombians (27% of the population) who live in poverty.

 


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Uribe (left) is congratulated
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