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From the August 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 8)

Colombian Elections

Colombia: New-Style Politics

Carmen Ospina, World Press Review correspondent

Uribe Colombia
Colombian President Álvaro Uribe in Paris, July 2, 2002 (Photo: AFP).
Colombians gave a resounding victory in May to Álvaro Uribe, the hard-right presidential candidate of the Primero Colombia party, who promised to crack down on the leftist rebels who have been waging war for 38 years.

Only two years ago, Uribe seemed just another peripheral candidate; he wasn’t part of either of the parties that have ruled Colombia for more than a century. But when peace talks with the largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), collapsed, Uribe’s message struck a chord: It was time to build up the armed forces, confront the leftist rebels, and restore the government’s authority.

A few weeks later, however, some of the 5.8 million Colombians who endorsed the president-elect’s hard-line policies were surprised by his Cabinet picks and announcements of political strategy. After a conciliatory victory speech in which he held out the possibility of negotiating with the guerrillas under U.N. mediation, many thought that the new president had changed his tune. “It sounded contradictory that the ‘hard-line’ candidate would send a message of dialogue with the guerrillas at such an early point,” observed Semana (June 3).

But unlike Uribe’s bellicose supporters, those who voted for his closest rival, Liberal Party populist Horacio Serpa, or for leftist candidate Luis Eduardo Garzón, viewed Uribe’s conciliatory message as a prudent move. “It was a good choice not to debut by taking out a revolver,” Daniel Samper Pizano noted in El Tiempo (May 28), “but instead to propose a peace effort with the international community’s help....I would like to think that Uribe’s prudent attitude responds to those voices that, from the other shore of his political campaign, cried out for a political solution to the conflict.” “An old style of doing politics—with more emotion than reason, more cunning than principle, and a captive electorate rather than a vote expressing a point of view—has succumbed,” Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza noted in El Espectador (June 1).

To some, however, Uribe’s call for negotiations wasn’t a surprise, as he had already touched upon this subject in the campaign. After three years of fruitless talks with the FARC, voters saw in Uribe’s radical vision—no dialogue before a cease-fire—a fresh tactic. “For the first time, a president didn’t put the issue in terms of ‘carrots and sticks’, ” asserted Revista Cambio’s  Roberto Pombo (June 3). “Traditionally, the equation has consisted of threatening with war and trying to seduce the guerrillas with a series of concessions....Instead, the guerrillas...have always eaten the carrot and avoided the stick.”
In a country where career politicians usually fill Cabinet posts, Uribe’s anti-establishment appointments caused a stir. He chose as his vice-presidential candidate human-rights advocate Francisco Santos. In June, he appointed as interior and justice minister Fernando Londoño, a lawyer known for litigating against the government. “[This] was a...message from Uribe that he will not give up on reforms and that he wants to achieve them with the fewest concessions and [least] politicking possible,” observed Semana (June 11).

On June 13, Uribe selected Marta Lucía Ramírez as his secretary of defense, the first woman to hold this Cabinet position.

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