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.