Sunday, May 25, 2014

Uribe's Magic - or Demonic - Touch

Watching the returns come in in a central Bogotá grocery.
Until recently, he was little known. And the Centro Democratico political party didn't even exist. Now, he's on the verge of becoming Colombia's next president.

Oscar Ivan Zuluaga.
Last year, ex-Pres. Alvaro Uribe created the Centro Democratico party from scratch to be his vehicle for returning to power, or at least to influence. At the party's recent inaugural convention, Uribe pulled strings to get his one-time minister of finance Oscar Ivan Zuluaga nominated as the party's presidential candidate over the better known, more popular and more charismatic Francisco Santos, who'd been Uribe's vice president.

Then Zuluaga became embroiled in a spying scandal in which he appeared to lie shamelessly to his country.

Out of this formula for disaster, Uribe has produced the leading candidate to be Colombia's president for the next four years.

Pres. Juan Manuel Santos,
a sad second.
Uribe himself withstood enough scandals to sink a hundred politicians. There were his alleged links to right-wing paramilitary groups, which he continues fighting in court. There was the Falsos Positivos tragedy, in which military units murdered thousands of young men and disguised them as guerrillas in order to earn bonuses and time off. And there was the DAS spying scandal, which many observers compared to Watergate.

But none of those things dented Uribe's popularity. He had, after all, earned Colombians' gratitude by
beating back the guerrillas which had kept the nation under siege.

By the same token, Zuluaga's own ongoing scandal, in which he met with a since-imprisoned computer hacker in an apparent attempt to sabotage rival campaigns, spy on the military and interfere with the peace negotiations going on in Havana, doesn't seem to have cost him support, either.

“Voters see this as a battle between Santos and Uribe, not Santos and Zuluaga,” pollster Javier Restrepo told the Washington Post.

That makes this election a real testament to the continued popularity of Uribe, who himself was just elected senator.

I happened to be in a corner grocery store when the results came in on their television.

"We're a nation of masochists," the storekeeper said.

But a Zuluaga voter who owns a small fish restaurant expressed confidence that the scandal wouldn't hurt the candidate. Rather, the restauranter yearned for a repeat of the Uribe presidency.

"We've got to hit those guerrillas hard," he told me.
Enrique Peñalosa: Kingmaker?

But could Zuluaga conceivably militarily defeat the guerrillas, who have withstood the government for a half-century?

And Santos, who was Uribe's minister of defense, has arguably hit the guerrillas very hard, killing several of their leaders. Paradoxically, however, he doesn't seem to have gotten much public credit for that.

Santos is also carrying out peace negotiations with the FARC guerrillas, which have advanced further than any previous peace talks. Under a Zuluaga presidency, those talks would likely founder.

But Zuluaga's victory is far from sewn up.

The almost half of voters who supported one of the minor candidates will now have to choose between Santos and Zuluaga. Most of Conservative Party candidate Maria Lucia Ramirez's 15% support will likely go to Zuluaga, while the 15% of voters who backed the Polo Democratic/Union Patriotica candidate Clara Lopez will shift to Santos - if they vote at all. Key could be whether ex-Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa endorses an ex-rival, as well as whether leftist leaders actually urge their voters to back Santos (or, more accurately, to oppose Zuluaga).

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Daniel Krohn said...

I think Santo's re-election strategy has been centered around an issue that has yet to come to any kind of fruition. Also, Colombia is going through a period of economic growth and stability during Santo's tenure in office. According to many polls, Colombian concerns are more focused around social issues that have not been improved, rather than peace with the FARC. I think the Colombian public is tired of an approach where there is too much carrot and not enough stick.

Also, support for Santos from the left leaning voters isn't certain. Many of the people who voted for the leftist candidate may or may not even vote during the run off. Thy don't like Zualaga, but they wouldn't see Santos as an alternative that parallels their political views either. However, Zualaga is almost sure to benefit from every single one of the conservative candidates votes. From my end, it doesn't look too good for Santos.

Miguel said...

Hi Daniel,

But the armed conflict has been Colombians' obsession for many years, so it's hard to imagine why people wouldn't care a lot about peace negotiations. And, why would they have more faith in more armed aggression - which the guerrillas have withstood for 50 years - than peace talks, which look very promising. And I don't believe that the mass of Colombians are really concerned about the guerrillas getting off without punishment.

As for 'stick', hasn't Santos hit the guerrillas hard during his presidency? How many guerrilla leaders has the military killed?

But I agree with your analysis of the political prospects. Santos' best hope, it seems to me, will be to turn out the Clara Lopez voters and the abstainers. That's why he has to turn out the Left. They don't necessarily want Santos president, but they certainly don't want a President Zuluaga.


Daniel Krohn said...

Well, you could make the argument that armed aggression has been the only thing that has worked against the FARC. No other Colombian leader went after the FARC like Uribe did, and the gains that were made against the FARC during his tenure in office cannot be denied. I think there is a consensus that the FARC is slowly trying to creep back into some of the places that had been previously neutralized by the military.

The peace process has been ongoing for quite some time now and has not yet changed the landscape for many people directly affected by the conflict. Yes, the guerrillas have persevered, but the argument could be made that Uribe just ran out of time. That's why the FARC are throwing their weight behind Snatos. They can either negotiate, or risk extinction at the hands of Zualaga (Uribe). I personally think if Santos had kept up the offensive momentum, the FARC would be on their last legs right about now.

When was the last time the Colombian military initiated a large offensive against the FARC. Has the Army killed any big fish since the peace process started (by big fish I mean senior commanders). Targeted killings of individuals may affect morale, but it does little to diminish the overall manpower of the organization. Killing the leaders may be good publicity, but the FARC has plenty of people willing to take their place. To me it seems that Santos is fine with maintaining the stays quo. What happens if the peace negotiations fail? Then what?

Miguel said...

'Uribe just ran out of time.' Well, perhaps. But remember that the FARC have outlasted more than a dozen presidents, and now more than a half-century. Uribe was not the first to attack them militarily.

According to military theory defeating a guerrilla force requires a ten to one advantage in manpower. And Colombia's guerrillas have an almost ideal setting: a big country with lots of mountains and remote regions, lots of poor people and many sources of black market income (drugs, mining, gasoline smuggling, etc). Mike

Daniel Krohn said...

True, but Uribe had a resurgent and competent military at his disposal. Decades of training by US Army Special Forces had finally begun to shape Colombia's Army into one of the best in Latin America (if not the best). A competent light infantry force, coupled with superior equipment courtesy of the US, allowed Uribe to go after the Guerrillas in a manner that was effective and unprecedented.

I know that the roots of the conflict reside in Colombia's glaring social issues, but Uribe's military strategy certainly paid dividends in terms of pushing back the FARC and allowing your average Colombian to physically see the results of his gains (at times ill gotten). Even after Colombians were well aware of his sordid collaborations, the man remains a popular and polarizing figure. I wonder why is that? If you look at it logically, Uribe should be relegated to the bowels of Colombia's shameful history; but yet he remains. Just as important as ever.

Colombia was close to being a failed state and the FARC even stood up the president during supposed peace negotiations. Now, the FARC has had to completely alter their strategy in order to survive. The days of them gaining and holding ground through offensive action are long gone.

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