Colombia: Peace in His Time?

President Álvaro Uribe
Colombian President Álvaro Uribe is riding high in the polls (Photo: Fernando Ruiz/Notimex-AFP-Getty Images).

President Álvaro Uribe, riding a wave of strong public approval ratings at the end of the first year of his administration, has embarked on a bold campaign to bring the leaders of Colombia’s rightist paramilitary movements to the bargaining table even as the army maintains pressure on the nation’s leftist guerrilla forces. Most Colombian commentators credit Uribe with considerable success in restoring some security and confidence to a nation that has been physically and psychologically devastated by decades of civil conflict. But they also question whether he can pull off this delicate political balance—waging war and peace simultaneously.

El Espectador (July 25), weighing the pros and cons of the Santa Fe de Ralito Accord signed in mid-July between the government and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), concluded that the most positive result from the opening of dialogue is the prospect raised for “demobilization of an illegal armed force,” an objective “that must be the sole touchstone for negotiations.” But an eventual accord to demobilize paramilitary forces, the editorial added, “cannot imply impunity for the crimes they have committed....It must provide some kind of punishment for the authors of these same crimes and compensation for the victims.”

From a wider perspective, El Espectador cautioned that the peace initiative in its initial phase is unlikely to bring all of Colombia’s fragmented paramilitary forces to the negotiating table—let alone the leftist guerrilla organizations. “What must be understood,” the editorial said, “is that this process that is beginning will be a laboratory in which the destiny of negotiations with the AUC, the FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia), and the ELN (National Liberation Army) will be played out. Thus, the cards that will be played are decisive for the future of national reconciliation.”

El Colombiano (Aug. 7) concluded in an editorial that the negotiating process with paramilitary groups “is not easy, but can lead to a safe harbor if it is conducted with wisdom and skill so as not to end up politically endorsing the legalization of drug-trafficking groups.” El Colombiano expressed hopes that the experience gained in the negotiations will provide the basis for a peace settlement with leftist guerrillas, specifically the FARC. “It is good to stress that President Uribe has never ruled out the possibility of negotiation with groups under arms, as some spokesmen of these [guerrilla] groups and sectors of the left have tried to maintain.”

Pedro Medellín Torres, writing in El Tiempo (Aug. 5), argued that Uribe’s record in the first year of his mandate offers grounds for concern that mounting frustration over the limits of presidential power—evidenced in an emerging movement to seek a constitutional change to allow an incumbent to seek re-election—“reveals how profound the crisis is in the presidency.” He observed that “the restoration of public confidence, undoubtedly the principal achievement of the first year of the administration, is necessary but not sufficient to end the crisis.” If Uribe continues to “force the machinery [of government] to produce results,” he said, “it could lead...officials to believe that they can fulfill their task only by reducing the limits of freedoms established by law....The road to authoritarianism is open.”