Colombia's Deep Divide
A hard rain fell upon the mountainside campus of Bogotá's elite Javeriana University, but the drumming and chanting of the student protesters outside the domed glass-wall auditorium penetrated nonetheless. On the podium, in wire-rimmed glasses and a charcoal suit, stood Colombia's far-right president, Álvaro Uribe Vélez. Behind the lean, pale politician the slope fell away onto a vista of treetops, lush mountains and the elegant Modernist contours of a city that can appear deceptively calm.
Uribe was here to address students and faculty as part of his campaign to win re-election on May 28. If successful, which is almost assured, he will be the first president of Colombia to serve two terms back to back--and it will mark a major victory for Colombia's far right just as the rest of the continent seems to be sliding ever more to the left.
"My security wanted me to use the other entrance, but we came through the protesters," said Uribe as the rain subsided. "They called me a fascist. A paramilitary. But let them come in and debate--this is an expression of Colombian democracy. I am not afraid of the shouting, I am just worried that behind it is hate."
During the bizarre five-hour verbal battle that followed, about 200 young activists took the audience microphone and accused their president of impoverishing the working classes, supporting repression and selling off the national patrimony. Uribe, in turn, calmly defended the role of big business in Colombia, touted what he calls "democratic security"--his total war on left-wing guerrillas and their civilian supporters--and accused the students of "crypto-communism."
"I blame the professors for the political disorientation of these youth," said Uribe at one point, his anger just barely showing. It was a statement made all the more chilling by recent revelations that the leadership of Colombia's Administrative Department for Security, or DAS, has been infiltrated by rightist paramilitaries who are supportive of Uribe and have used government computers to draw up hit lists of trade unionists and, yes, professors. Uribe has brushed aside the scandal, attacked the press for reporting it and sent a key suspect to a cushy diplomatic post in Italy.
Raised in the violent countryside near Medellín, in Antioquia province, but educated at Oxford and Harvard, the 54-year-old Uribe presents a strange mix of personas. At times he is the provincial patrón, the menacing tough guy with a thick regional accent that sets him apart from the Bogotá elite. At others, he is the wonkish, workaholic Davos-man; the flexible, modernizing technocrat. The mix is subtly demagogic, as both Uribe personas pretend to transcend politics with appeals to common sense.
Colombia, with a sizable population of 42 million and a hard-right president, is the Bush Administration's only true friend in Latin America. Uribe has ridden horses with George Bush in Crawford, plans to sign a sweeping free-trade agreement with the United States and has secured several billion dollars in US military aid for his country.
Early in his first term, Uribe had moments of unprecedented popularity, once even reaching a 70 percent approval rating. His main achievement in the eyes of most supporters has been a limited rollback of the country's leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN).
The war is a rather personal matter for Uribe: In 1983 the FARC killed his father, and in 2002 they almost got the president-to-be with a massive roadside bomb. In the past four years Uribe has imposed something like security on several key road links between cities, and the guerrillas have been forced out of several northern coastal population centers by right-wing paramilitaries.
"His policy is pure lead," says a former truck driver named Edgar approvingly. Edgar drove freight across Colombia for twenty-eight years but finally quit to drive a cab. "Before, if you didn't pay taxes the guerrillas would burn your truck."