Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

The Uribe model for ending intractable conflicts

Bangkok Post - June 28th 2006

By Nicolas Echavarria and Charles Tannock

A left-wing tide has supposedly been sweeping Latin America. But Alvaro Uribe's re-election in Colombia may not only have begun the process of reversing that tide; it has perhaps also shown conservative and liberal parties across the continent a way forward, one that may soon be tested in Mexico's presidential vote on July 2.

Indeed, Colombia's recent presidential election was truly historic. The charismatic and workaholic President Uribe was allowed for the first time in Colombia's modern history to stand for a second four-year term as an incumbent, winning outright in the first round with an absolute majority of 62% of the popular vote.

His victory shattered a century-and-a-half of cozy bipartisan misrule. Mr Uribe, a former Liberal, appears on the verge of forging a new consensus embodied in his First Colombia movement, a bloc of six Uribista parties that embraces the sort of modernising economics and liberal democratic politics that has characterised much of the West for the past 25 years.

Opposed to this consensus is a new left-wing party, the Polo Alternativo Democratico (PAD). Headed by a former constitutional court judge, Carlos Gaviria, the PAD consists of a broad range of leftists, from former Marxist guerrillas to third way social democrats.

Mr Uribe's victory, and the emerging political consensus that it reflects, was remarkable for its peacefulness, in contrast to the violence that left-wing guerrillas unleashed when he won the presidency four years ago. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the rural Marxist narco-traffickers who have been the most aggressive of Colombia's rebels, threatened violence, but backed off, as Mr Uribe has fatally undermined both its military capability and popular support.

Mr Uribe's carrot and stick policy to the guerrillas combined democratic security under the rule of law and respect for human rights with the popular slogan "Long live Colombia and travel through her". The slogan meant that his government intended to free up (by military means) the country's main road networks, even when these passed through FARC territory. After 40 years of bloody internal conflict, this proved a winning strategy.

At the same time, Mr Uribe secured a negotiated agreement to demobilise the right-wing paramilitary insurgents, the United Self-Defence Forces (AUC) and successfully disarmed 30,000 AUCs through a programme, called "firm hands, big heart", based on civilian reintegration and financial reparation to victims of their crimes. The top 2,000 AUC commanders who gave themselves up in exchange for reduced sentences face possible criminal trials.

Moreover, the Colombian Supreme Court is expected to reduce impunity further by amending the law that allows these trials to make all the paramilitaries assets available for compensation to their victims. Full confessions about AUC crimes are also promised, with former paramilitary fighters facing full retribution for withholding information.

This model is being hailed internationally as a possible compromise formula for ending intractable conflicts where atrocities cannot go unpunished but incentives must be found to disarm warring factions. Mr Uribe has even managed, despite being a US ally, to get the support of Cuba's Fidel Castro, who appears to have abandoned his support for armed revolutionary struggle in Latin America, instead viewing success at the ballot box; the PAD in Colombia, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and Evo Morales in Boliva as the way forward.

Given the presence of the FARC, Colombia is deeply suspicious of the antics of the leftist Mr Chavez, who is currently busy arming his people with Kalashnikov rifles produced by a new Russian-built factory. However, unlike President Alan Garcia of Peru, who Mr Chavez may be trying to bully, Mr Chavez has been forced to recognise Mr Uribe's enormous popularity.

Mr Uribe knows that his mission remains incomplete. Only by defeating the FARC and eliminating its cocaine and heroin production through an eradication policy of crop spraying and subsidising cash-crop alternatives, can he guarantee security to all Colombians. But the West must do more to interdict the flow of drug money and the provision of chemicals for cocaine processing. More efforts along the lines of the EU's Peace Laboratories are needed to stabilise conflict zones.

All of Mr Uribe's political programme is buttressed by his strong economic track record of consistent 5% annual growth. Indeed, the promise of sustained growth must be the foundation of any successful non-socialist party in Latin America.

But for Mr Uribe's consensus to outlast him and become a truly viable model for the continent, he knows that he must win the hearts and minds of Colombia's disaffected rural population. Establishing proper legal title for small rural landholders will help. Mr Uribe's second term brings the hope that two million of the country's dispossessed and internally displaced can become proud stakeholders in Colombia's now much brighter future. It also brings hope to Latin America's embattled democratic and free-market forces.

Nicolas Echavarria, a former Colombian Ambassador to the EU, directed President Uribe's re-election campaign
Charles Tannock is Vice President of the Human Rights Sub-committee of the European Parliament and was an International Election Observer at the 2006 Colombian Presidential election.