In October, as Florida braced for Hurricane Wilma and the White House tried to forestall a political tempest, a major development in Latin America sailed beneath the radar. Colombia's Constitutional Court handed down a landmark ruling that was celebrated by some, derided by others and labeled "transcendental" by the news media. The decision: A law passed last December that would allow incumbent President Alvaro Uribe to run for re-election would stand, and the nation's Constitution would be amended make room.
Under Colombia's 1991 Carta Magna, the president has until now been limited to a single, four-year term--a safeguard against dictatorship and a marker of one of Colombia's defining contradictions: Despite its reputation for instability and impunity, the country's judicial system and democratic institutions have long been held as sacred. For a society that once kept presidential terms as short as two years, such a constitutional extension of executive power is, simply put, a big deal.
Just how big could be seen in the local press. In Bogotá, the story held a monopoly on magazine covers for weeks. The weekly Semana proclaimed it "The Zero Hour" over an image of the president, in dark sunglasses, days before the ruling. Afterward, the image of a grinning Uribe illustrated a story headlined "President or Emperor?" The magazine Cambio published a special edition promising the "untold story" behind the court's decision. This was not simply tabloid hyperbole. The re-election issue is considered the most important decision by the high court in decades. It amounts, as a columnist for the daily El Tiempo argued, to "altering the rules of the game of the country, politically and institutionally."
For Uribe's friends in the White House, the news from Bogotá could only be a good thing--but back in Washington, coping with hurricane recovery efforts, fallout from the Harriet Miers nomination and the ongoing CIA leak investigation, there was no word from the Bush Administration.
Coincidentally, however, the ruling overlapped with a little-noted anniversary, marked by Bush in a memo to Congress the same day. In October 1995, under Bill Clinton, Colombia had been declared to be in a state of "national emergency" by the US government, because its narco-traffickers presented an "unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States." Hours before the decision that could extend Uribe's tenure for another term, Bush extended the state of emergency for another year: "The circumstances that led to the declaration of a national emergency have not been resolved," he said.
The extension itself is unremarkable--it happens every year. But a decade after the drug trade made Colombia an official emergency, the "war on drugs" is not only unresolved; it has been a costly failure. Under Bush, the bloated enterprise known as Plan Colombia morphed from a mainly anti-trafficking measure to a $3 billion windfall for the Colombian military--an army with well-documented ties to the county's right-wing paramilitaries. Today, Colombia exports $10 billion in cocaine to the United States, roughly half of which is under paramilitary control. The paras, of course, are also responsible for some of the most grisly massacres in recent chapters of Colombia's armed conflict.
Nevertheless, Colombia remains Bush's political anchor in Latin America. As Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told the Inter-American Dialogue on the eve of Uribe's visit to Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch in August, "We have no better partner in Latin America." Furthermore, he said, "We support a follow-up to Plan Colombia."
Any such follow-up already includes White House support of Uribe's "Justice and Peace Law," a disquieting bit of legislation that has been widely condemned as a gift to the paramilitaries. The law, signed this summer, is a massive demobilization initiative that is allowing thousands of paramilitaries to trade in their arms for the likelihood that they will never be held accountable for their crimes. Colombian human rights groups have called the law "a mimicry of justice, which, rather than bringing us closer to peace, will distance us from it." In a scathing July editorial, the New York Times suggested a more appropriate name for the legislation: "Impunity for Mass Murderers, Terrorists and Major Cocaine Traffickers Law."
Uribe's response to critics has employed the now-familiar tack of linking them with terrorists. In a pointed reply to the New York Times, he warned that its criticism was useful to "friends of the guerrillas" intent on undermining the government. He questioned whether his detractors would be so outraged if the law were seen as benefiting the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rather than the right-wing paras. Mostly, however, he reminded people of his security record--major reductions in kidnappings, for example--saying, "Administrations have to be judged by their results."
Uribe likes to talk about results, and indeed, his popularity is largely based on increased security measures that, for many war-weary Colombians, trump all other criticisms. But the oft-cited decline in kidnappings since Uribe took office has been accompanied by an upsurge in human rights abuses by the state. Mass arrests with names like Operation Liberty have targeted human rights workers and citizens living in rural guerrilla zones. And according to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, thirty-three human rights activists were murdered or "disappeared" between August 2002 and August 2004. Such repression--especially as it occurs outside Bogotá--hasn't been enough to put a dent in Uribe's 80 percent approval ratings, however. Given the choice, many would gladly take peace over justice. For his part, Uribe is happy to perpetuate his results-based leadership image by reminding his constituents of how much safer they feel.
On a cold night in early October, as the country waited for word from the high court, a car bomb exploded in northern Bogotá, an assassination attempt against a conservative senator that left his bodyguards bloodied but the politician unharmed. Uribe rushed to the scene of the crime to denounce the terrorist act, blaming the FARC. Whether the fifty kilos of nitrate (which recalled an earlier, fear-filled era in the capital) helped nudge the judges toward their ruling may now be a moot point, but the timing made it hard to believe the decision over the re-election law would entirely ignore politics in favor of constitutionality. (As the USA Patriot Act proved, there's no denying the political potency of a president with a megaphone.)
One more legal hurdle remains before Uribe can run again: The court must consider the Electoral Guarantees Law, which ostensibly insures that a sitting president cannot abuse his position for electoral advantage. The ruling, scheduled for mid-November, is expected to be in Uribe's favor. After that, an Uribe campaign is likely a foregone conclusion.
Uribe's re-election would not necessarily mean a drift toward dictatorship. But coupled with Colombia's increasingly militarized society, the potential mandate imbued by the re-election ruling cannot be underestimated. "The most important thing for this administration has been the policy of asserting its authority," Uribe declared this summer. For the sake of Colombia and US foreign policy, let's hope there's more to it than that.