By Ramiro S. Fúnez
Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and 19 of his right-wing Democratic Center party leaders were elected into the country’s Senate on March 9 with one overarching goal in mind – putting an end to the government’s ongoing peace talks in Havana with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) leaders.
Uribe brings to the Senate his unswerving conservatism and militaristic approach in dealing with the country’s almost 50-year-old civil war. He opposes campaigns initiated by current President Juan Manuel Santos to negotiate with rebel leaders on potential impunity and grant them future political participation. Ironically, Santos sided with Uribe in dealing with the FARC while serving as defense minister under the former presidential administration, but then switched tactics when he assumed power.
Now, Uribe is determined to use his parliamentary seat and his party’s increased presence to destabilize efforts by the Santos government to establish accords with the Marxist-Leninist group. The former president is the first in Colombia to successfully run for and attain a congressional seat after serving as the country’s primary leader.
Uribe’s newly-formed Democratic Center party won 19 seats of the 102-member Senate, the upper house of the Colombian Congress. He almost reached the 21 seats Santos’ incumbent center-right Social Party of National Unity attained. While Uribe’s party will not hold a majority in the Senate, it will certainly have leverage in future decision-making, especially those concerning domestic military conflict.
"Today we voted against the Castro-Chavismo that some want to bring, that the government is supporting," Uribe said during a fiery speech following the parliamentary election, criticizing the Santos administration, while referencing former Cuban and Venezuelan presidents Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. He also mentioned his party supports "a country that has no hesitation to oppose terrorism."
Uribe’s 2002 to 2010 presidency was marked by a no-holds-barred military approach to national security. Under his administration, Colombia’s government allocated the largest expenditure on military development in its history while running a budget deficit of 6 percent of the country’s total gross domestic product (GDP), significantly higher than the 2.5 percent limit placed by the International Monetary Fund. Consequently, the country also experienced some of its highest rates of poverty, inequality and human rights abuses with the government’s increased focus on fighting leftist guerillas.
While many of Uribe’s constituents lauded his efforts for fighting crime through direct, coercive means, several of his critics have pointed to his failure of examining the Colombian civil war through a critical, socially-conscious lens. The FARC and several other left-wing guerrilla groups, like the Marxist National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Bolivarian 19th of April Movement (M-19), were predominantly founded to combat unfettered capitalism, rampant corruption and violation of the rights of the country’s agricultural working class.
His critics have also cited his support for right-wing paramilitary groups funded by Colombia’s military budget that are responsible for at least 70 to 80 percent of politically related murders in Colombia each year, with the rest committed by government troops and leftist guerillas. Uribe’s government, receiving the highest amount of United States foreign military aid compared to any other Latin American country, continued his strong-arm maneuvers through the end of his incumbency.
While Santos has certainly inherited a number of Uribe’s tactics aimed at curbing armed domestic violence, he has demonstrated his willingness to be somewhat more progressive than his predecessor and engage in peace talks with FARC leadership in the hopes of ushering in an end to the skirmishes. Aside from seeking an end to Colombia’s civil war, however, Santos will also focus on his reelection campaign for the country’s upcoming presidential election in May.
For now, it is clear that President Santos is expected to face vehement opposition in the coming months with Uribe’s ascendency. But Uribe's new legislative power, as outlined above, means more that just a political fight against the current leader. Colombia's peace process could be seriously at risk as Uribe campaigns against it in its current form. Is defeating a comprehensive peace plan something the Colombian government is willing to do? And more importantly, can it afford to?
Ramiro S. Fúnez is a Honduran-American political journalist and activist earning his master's degree in politics at New York University.