Álvaro Uribe Vélez, a political biography
This is the first political biog on Colombia Politics. We thought we´d start with the controversial figure of Alvaro Uribe. Over the coming weeks more biogs will be added under a new, Who´s Who section of the website.
Uribe was Colombian President for two periods, 2002-2006 and 2006-2010.
Born in Medellin in 1954, Uribe is the son of farmer and landowner Alberto Uribe Sierra, and Laura Uribe Velez, a local councillor in Salgar, Antioquia.
While at the University of Antioquia reading law and political science, Uribe joined the Young Liberals.
Uribe entered public life, through his connections to the Liberal Party, taking up a number of state jobs during the 70 and early 80s. Most famously he was Director of Civil Aviation between 1980 and 1982.
By 1982 Uribe had entered politics proper and became mayor of Medellín (in the 80s mayors were not elected but appointed by the President of the Republic who at the time was Belisario Betancur).
Uribe´s time as mayor was short lived, and in 1983 the ex-president suffered what was to shape his political career; the death of his father, at the hands of the FARC.
Later that decade, Uribe made his way to the senate, as a Liberal, until he left in 1994 to become Governor of Antioquia.
As governor, Uribe controversially took the lead on promoting ´Convivir´, a process that began with private security firms working with the armed forces, and led to (some within this) joining the illegal self-defence groups.
During these years, Uribe cultivated a hard-line image, an approach that later became the ´mano dura´ platform of his presidency.
After leaving office in 98, Uribe disappeared from the politics (and for a while, the country) returning in 2000 to join Liberal, Horacio Serpa´s campaign for the 2002 presidency.
But the Liberal Party lost Uribe with its decision to support President Pastrana´s (Conservative) infamous peace negotiations with the FARC in Caguán.
At this point Uribe broke away and became an independent, deciding to run for the presidency, without the backing of a traditional political force.
According to folk law, Uribe´s election winning manifesto of all-out war against the FARC came about following a nation-wide ´listening tour´, in which he went from town to town to try to understand the concerns both of rural and urban populations. After hearing repeatedly that the threat of the guerilla was the number one issue, Uribe´s mind was fixed and a political narrative born.
How true it is that these talks shaped Uribe´s politics is difficult to prove, but it is a good story, and this direct connection Uribe established with populations – often forgotten by the urban elite – was something that the president cultivated throughout his time in office. And was this folksy-charm that kept him popular throughout his 8 years in the Casa de Nariño.
In 2002 Uribe became President of Colombia in the first round, with over 50% of the vote, leaving eight years later with an approval rating in the 70s.
In power Uribe used the money secured as part of Plan Colombia (signed between Pastrana and Bill Clinton) to establish the ‘democratic security’ doctrine which strengthening the military, and took the fight to the FARC.
By the time Uribe had left office the image of Colombia abroad had been transformed, foreign direct investment began to flood in, and GDP had close on doubled. Uribe is credited with helping to rescue the country from its descent towards a failed state.
By 2005, Uribe´s popularity lead the president to push for a reform of the constitution which had hitherto restricted heads of state to one term only. Uribe secured the changes, and gathered a coalition of support, to run for re-election. With the backing of Juan Manuel Santos´ newly created U Party, the Conservatives, and Cambio Radical (among other groups), Uribe was returned to office with over 60% of the vote (and a large majority in Congress).
Uribe´s second term was seen in some ways as being less successful than his first, in part because government official and coalition members became embroiled in scandals – the most dramatic of which was the ´parapolitics´ revelation which led to the conviction of congressman for their ties with paramilitary groups.
Other scandals included ´Yidispolítica´, the DAS´ (intelligence agency) systemic wiretapping of judges and opposition politicians, and the extrajudicial killings of civilians (who were made to appear as though they were guerrilla combatants) known as ´false positives´. There is not space here to details these scandals, but it is worth noting that they continue to affect the image of the last government, as well as Uribe himself.
As the end of Uribe´s second mandate approached, parliamentarians ran a campaign to call a referendum, that if passed, would permit the president to run for a third time, in 2010. The courts prevented the legislation from passing into law, and Uribe was forced eventually to lend support to Juan Manuel Santos (his Defence Minister) in the presidential elections of that year.
Uribe left office as perhaps the most popular president in Colombian history. For all the controversy that he attracted, he could point to major improvements in the security situation, and the major debilitation of the FARC. While his critics accuse him of corruption, or at least of supporting corrupt officials.
Since leaving office, Uribe has transformed into the most vocal opposition politician in the land, attacking President Santos (whose candidature he supported) for not (as Uribe sees it) continuing with the policies of the ex-president.
Earlier this year, Uribe launched a new political party, Puro Centro Democratico, a base from which he hopes Uribism can return to the presidential palace. Uribe himself is constitutionally prohibited from running again, but the search is on for a candidate to lead his movement.
Uribe retains a fiercely loyal following. As a result of his polemical character, he also attracts equally fierce opposition.
The ex-president is an outspoken critic of the Santos government´s decision to enter into peace talks with the FARC.