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Colombia: Will Uribe’s Honeymoon Last?


The first hundred days have come and gone, and Colombians continue to hold high hopes that President Álvaro Uribe will lead the country out of its entrenched crisis by strengthening security and resolving the decades-long civil war. This is underscored by an approval rating that has risen during his first four months in office from 69 per cent to 75 per cent. Despite the all-too-usual bombings, kidnappings and firefights, a majority of respondents say things are getting better, a decided reversal from earlier polls. For the first time in recent memory, Colombians said their "government was governing".

The new government's agenda has three pillars:

  • improving security across the country by stepping up pressure on the irregular armed groups while devising ways to encourage them to lay down their arms and demobilise;

  • modernising the state apparatus and battling corruption; and

  • balancing the budget while reviving economic growth and reducing unemployment.

Each is a stern test in its own right; achieving all three simultaneously will require a Herculean effort, expenditure of sizeable political capital and a sure sense of priorities and timing.

President Uribe, who ran on a security platform, has appointed a team that is generally technocratic and has received high marks from domestic and international observers. He has begun with some sweeping steps that, although they have not yet changed the fundamental balance of power vis-à-vis the rebels, have improved the sense of public safety. By pushing for increased war taxes and a major mobilisation against insurgents, he has embraced the strategy that advances on the battlefield can produce advances at the negotiating table.

Most Colombians continue to demand that the government use its legitimate powers to counter daily threats of abduction, extortion and death at the hands of the irregular armed groups, drug mafia and organised crime. However, Colombia's crisis runs far deeper than the battlefield. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita fell by 5.8 per cent in 1999, increased by a meagre 0.9 per cent in 2000 and fell again by 0.3 per cent in 2001. Half the economically active population is either unemployed or underemployed, and more than 54 per cent – close to 80 per cent in rural areas – are below the poverty line. More than two million remain internally displaced, 200,000 more during the first six months of this year alone.

These circumstances confront the Uribe administration with competing pressures. The economic and social crisis puts pressure on the government to act decisively to create jobs and provide services. However, only significantly greater tax revenues and external aid will permit needed public investment in social, humanitarian and economic programs, without restricting the government’s ability to build its security forces. While it is impossible to achieve greater security and state presence across the country without sufficient funds, it is equally unwise to reduce social spending in the face of economic and social misery. The administration’s economic reform plans have already lagged somewhat, and they will be implemented more slowly because of both their complexity and resistance from influential players such as the trade unions.

Colombia's future will rest on the ability of the Uribe administration to balance security progress, substantial political reform and at least moderate economic growth that also improves the social safety net. Security and peace must come first on the agenda but how that is done — whether human rights are respected – is crucial. Domestic and international human rights groups maintain a drumbeat of criticism, particularly against the initial emergency orders giving the military powers to detain without court order in selected regions and creating a network of citizen informants, and the alleged climb-down on paramilitary prosecutions by the independent attorney general. The basic rationale for national sacrifice could well be lost if short-term military concerns dominate decision-making to the exclusion of competing priorities like visibly extending state services in rural Colombia.

Bogotá/Brussels, 19 December 2002

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