By Shaun Randol
Outside his home country, President Álvaro Uribe may best be known for overseeing Plan Colombia, a massive effort in the so-called “War on Drugs,” presented by Bill Clinton and later implemented by George W. Bush. The main objective of the program was to stem the flow of cocaine pouring into the United States from South America’s third-largest economy, and was implemented during Uribe’s two presidential terms.
Although the military industry complex in both countries benefitted greatly from Plan Colombia, which ran from 1996 to 2006, it was an unqualified disaster in many respects. During the years of Plan Colombia cocaine production actually increased—a 2008 United Nations survey found that coca cultivation grew by as much as 27 percent in Colombia. Violence escalated as well. Sabotage, kidnappings, and murders occurred on both sides of the conflict—amongst the Colombian military, paramilitary groups, and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—with thousands killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.
Uribe served as president from 2002 to 2010, but he continues to shape the country’s domestic and foreign affairs—this time in the senate, where he has established himself at the center of the Centro Democrático, a loose coalition of elected officials standing in opposition to the part of Juan Manuel Santos (Uribe’s former defense minister and now himself a two-term president.)
The Uribistas and the Santistas, as the followers of both presidents are known, are not very far apart on the ideological spectrum. Both represent conservative-right parties that embrace free market economics and are populated by the upper class. For nearly 100 years, the Santos family was the majority owner of the country’s largest newspaper El Tiempo, and two other members of the Santos family have served as president and vice president. Uribe, whose father was killed by FARC rebels, comes from a wealthy landowning and cattle ranching family in Medellin. From what I gathered in casual conversations with Bogotá’s locals, the real difference between the two clans is a matter of personality; somewhat like the Bushes and Clintons in the United States, you simply either love them or hate them.
On October 16, as a guest of Senator Ivan Duque, I met Uribe and other members of the Centro Democrático in Uribe’s congressional office. We spoke for more than thirty minutes on macro economics and the continuing peace process with FARC. Below is an edited version that focuses on the latter topic.
SHAUN RANDOL: Is anything going right with in the ongoing peace negotiations with the FARC?
FORMER PRESIDENT ÁLVARO URIBE: In my opinion, no. I will give you a list of our complaints. First, [Santos’s] government did not require cease of hostilities, the ceasing of criminal activities from the terrorist groups. The consequence has been an increase in violence in the country. We see a contradiction between having peace talks and at the same time an increase in domestic violence.
President Juan Manuel Santos
Second: impunity. This government has offered impunity and political eligibility for those involved in atrocities. [The Centro Democrático’s] view is that for those who are involved in the base of FARC, we are [willing to give] them amnesty, pardons, and political eligibility. But for the kingpins, we accept to shorten prison sentences, but we cannot accept impunity, nor can we accept for those involved in atrocities political eligibility. Today we are going to release a document prepared by our team in which we espouse our main concerns with the peace process.
[Santos’s] government has put at the same level the armed forces of our country and terrorist groups. To understand our complaint it is necessary to establish the difference between our country and other Latin American countries where the peace process took place.
RANDOL: In El Salvador amnesty was granted.
URIBE: And in others. In those countries there was a confrontation between civilians raised in arms against dictators. This is the difference between two phrases: “insurgency” – they were called insurgents – and the second phrase: “political conflict.”
But we cannot apply these two phrases to Colombia because here we do not have the confrontation between civilians and dictators. Colombia has had the longest rule of law in Latin America. For instance, in the last century, Mexico had twelve years of democratic interruption, our country only four, and our democratic interruption was between 1953 and 1957. The Marxist guerillas show up at the very beginning of the 1960s, therefore the entire time this country has suffered violence it has been in presence in the rule of law. This is a significant difference from other countries.
We have said it is a grave mistake to put the armed forces at the same level of the terrorist groups. Therefore we are very concerned for multiple aspects.
SENATOR IVAN DUQUE: And FARC is the main drug cartel. There is a huge difference compared to any other [peace] process in other countries. So that is something which is very, very important to understand in the case of Colombia. FARC has been financed for the last 25 years by the drug trade and they are extremely economically powerful. That is something which is very important to understand in and why we say we are in favor of these talks, but with conditions, as President Uribe well explained.
And we have now the Treaty of Rome [Rome Statute], which changes now the configuration of the past and the present and the future. Colombia has to comply with the treaty and they cannot leave in impunity any crimes against humanity, so that adds to President Uribe’s argument that impunity must be prevented, ensuring that people who have committed crimes against humanity have a minimum amount of punishment in terms of imprisonment. That is part of the opinion we have presented to the public consistently over the last five years.
URIBE: But listen to these two points: FARC is the largest cocaine cartel in the world. It has been the main supplier of cocaine to the Mexican cartels, therefore we cannot stand that our government negotiates the future of the policy against drugs with the largest cocaine cartel. Impunity breaks Colombia’s commitment with the International Court. Every time this country has given impunity to some terrorist it has created [amongst the youth] expectations for them to become terrorists.
And it is very important to consider this: During this year, almost 100 members of the armed forces have been killed by FARC. The international community has made this comparison: if the United States at any moment made a decision to negotiate with al Qaeda and during the talks al Qaeda killed American soldiers, what would be the American response? We have said our armed forces are very unmotivated because of this government—there is no reaction whenever soldiers or policemen are killed by FARC. All the support this country has for security lies with the motivation of the armed forces, but they are totally de-motivated.
RANDOL: What is your opinion on putting the peace referendum to the people?
URIBE: It is a risky step. Behind the beautiful word of “peace” the government and FARC have many risky agreements for the rule of law for the country. As we are going to say to the country today – we are going to publish today 52 complaints on the agreements that the government and FARC have released. What is the transversal element of our complaints? That this is a great threat to the rule of law, to the private economy, private investment in our economy, domestic and foreign. If these agreements are ratified because of the beautiful word “peace,” it could be very damning for the country.
And there is another violation of our constitution for the referendum. The interpretation we have had so far is that any referendum cannot coincide with other elections. On this occasion the government has approved that the referendum or the ratification of the agreements would coincide with the [2015 local] elections. The “coincidence” between the referendum and other elections is a limitation of the freedom of the voters to study and think about the questions included in the referendum and to vote freely.
RANDOL: Would your party put the referendum to the people, not tied to the local elections?
URIBE: In general we say yes, but we have other concerns. For instance, we disagree that any government negotiates the national agenda with terrorist groups. During our administration there were 53,000 members of terrorist groups. We gave them shorter sentences but we never negotiated the national agenda, because there has been the rule of law in this country. You have governmental caucuses and caucuses of the opposition, therefore in a democratic country we cannot stand that the national agenda be negotiated with terrorist groups.
The other point is how you present the question: Do you want peace? Our answer is: who does not want peace? Everyone wants peace. Therefore it is necessary to desegregate the question from the election so the citizens can have the possibility to study the referendum to know how to answer.
Shaun Randol is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Mantle and the co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing. He is also an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @shaunrandol.
[Photos courtesy of Wikimedia]