WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
6 Feb 2015 | Commentary

5 Questions Ahead of Uribe’s Possible Washington Visit

Colombian media have reported that former president and peace process critic Alvaro Uribe may be coming to Washington. Here are five questions for the occasion:

According to reports in Colombia’s media, a delegation of members of Colombia’s Democratic Center (Centro Democrático) party will be in Washington, D.C. next week, and may be accompanied by former President (2002-2010) Álvaro Uribe. Uribe is now a senator, leader of Centro Democrático, and prominent critic of the ongoing peace talks between Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest guerrilla group. Below are five key questions that the delegation should respond to during their visit.


Many in the United States recall Álvaro Uribe as the president who launched a military buildup that weakened Colombia’s largest left-wing guerrilla group, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), and who negotiated the demobilization of pro-government paramilitary groups. Though Colombia still has some of the world’s highest violent crime rates, Uribe’s presidency saw a sharp drop in homicides and kidnappings.

To many in the United States, though, Uribe is a controversial figure. Even as Colombia’s armed forces killed over 3,000 civilians during his tenure, he actively opposed human rights investigations and labeled human rights defenders “spokespeople for terrorism.”

Today, Senator Uribe is Colombia’s most vocal opponent of the peace negotiations with the FARC that his successor, President Juan Manuel Santos (2010-present), launched in 2012. According to a mid-December Gallup poll, 62 percent of Colombians are in favor of these talks, while 36 percent, like Uribe, oppose them.

The same poll found 47 percent of Colombians with a favorable image of Uribe, and the same percentage viewing him unfavorably. This is a steep decline from Gallup surveys [PDF, page 80] taken as recently as 2011, which consistently put the former president’s favorability over 70 percent and his unfavorability under 30 percent.

Uribe’s fall in popularity owes to his increasingly radical views, to his human rights record, and to the scandals that have hit several members of his innermost circle. These include his presidential chief of staff (banned for 18 years from participating in politics for abusive use of wiretaps); his agriculture minister (sentenced to prison for corruption, currently a fugitive); his chief peace negotiator (currently a fugitive wanted for alleged involvement in a fake guerrilla demobilization); and two chiefs of his presidential intelligence agency, one in prison for conspiracy to commit murder, and one who just returned to Colombia last week after fleeing from justice in Panama. Now, his party’s 2014 presidential candidate is under investigation for conspiring with a computer hacker to intercept communications.

Álvaro Uribe will be visiting a Washington that has shown consistent bipartisan support to President Santos’s peace process. The FARC negotiations have moved slowly but have made important progress. Before the end of the year, many observers see a real possibility of an accord that can remove the FARC as a factor of violence in Colombia.

While WOLA hopes that this bipartisan support will continue, we also welcome visits from critics of the process and believe that Álvaro Uribe deserves a hearing. The concerns of critical sectors of Colombia’s democracy must be taken into account, to the greatest extent possible, to guarantee a broader front of support for an eventual accord and its implementation. A post-conflict Colombia should resolve its political differences through dialogue and respect for human rights, not violence.


While he is in Washington, though, Senator Uribe and his party should also be prepared to answer some tough questions about his positions and his tactics. Here are some suggestions.

1. Why does Senator Uribe keep insisting that these peace negotiations will let human rights abusers off the hook?

“We don’t oppose peace, we oppose impunity,” he says frequently in speeches and tweets. Uribe has accused the Santos government of “proposing that the recruiters and killers of children…leave the jungle, go to Havana, and go on to Congress without passing through jail.” In December, he led a street protest called the “March for Peace without Impunity.”

It is not clear why Uribe is so certain that guerrilla (or military) human rights violators will avoid accountability, since the peace negotiators have barely begun to discuss the topic of justice for human rights crimes. When they do, because of the international human rights treaties Colombia has signed, the agreement is likely to end up with some sort of confinement or imprisonment for those who committed or ordered the most serious crimes.

This imprisonment may not be as long or as severe as criminal law normally demands. But Uribe seems to accept that. He wrote in November, “With relation to those responsible for atrocities, we share the idea of reduced sentences, but not the absence of punishments that deprive liberty.”

This sounds like what President Santos has been saying, as he did in a speech on February 4.

”The guerrillas don’t want to be the first in history to hand in their weapons only to go to a prison. But at the same time, today’s world is different, and we have national and international legislation and jurisprudence that don’t permit the pardons and amnesties of the old days. How to ‘square that circle’ is one of the great challenges we are facing.”

It would appear that the current president and the former president have similar positions on the “impunity” issue. Why do they not seek common ground?

2. Why is Senator Uribe convinced that a peace accord with the FARC will turn Colombia into a country dominated by “Castro-Chávez-ism?”

In that same November letter Uribe wrote, “The dominant thesis of the accords [the three partial peace accords made public so far] is the totalitarian vision—well-disguised—of Castro Chavismo.” The term refers to the leftist authoritarianism practiced by the Castro brothers in Cuba and Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. Uribe’s rhetoric employs the term “Castro-Chávezism” very frequently.

Why Uribe is convinced of this is unclear and unsubstantiated. President Santos is a pro-market moderate who served as Uribe’s defense minister from 2006 to 2009. The accords reached so far may require a good deal of government expenditure and more space for small leftist political parties, but they will not even require amendments to Colombia’s constitution, much less a new political or economic model.

3. Why does Senator Uribe talk to the armed forces in such a dangerous manner?

Imagine Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, or Donald Rumsfeld publicly and regularly declaring that Barack Obama is betraying and disrespecting the U.S. armed forces, all but encouraging the military to defy the current Commander in Chief. Senator Uribe constantly makes such statements, especially at his very active Twitter account.

Just since mid-January, Uribe has published tweets accusing President Santos of “forever staining the noble sacrifice of soldiers and police,” “destroying a large part of military honor,” and “creating conditions to disrespect the armed forces.”

These are direct appeals to the officer corps, with an apparent intent to sow doubt about their commander. While in Washington, Uribe should explain why he engages in a practice that would be taboo in the United States and in most other nations with healthy civil-military relations.

4. Would Senator Uribe agree to a bilateral cessation of hostilities?

Uribe has criticized President Santos for failing to force the FARC, as a precondition for talks, to abandon all forms of violence and criminality, including extortion, laying landmines, and child recruitment. (President Santos did successfully get the FARC to abandon kidnapping as a pre-condition for talks.)

Today, as the guerrillas have declared a unilateral cease-fire, President Santos has ordered his negotiators—in the name of “de-escalation”—to get the FARC to commit to abandoning these practices, and even to reversing some. Uribe’s former police commander, Gen. Oscar Naranjo—now one of the government’s negotiators—said in January that measures on the table now include “decontamination of minefields, the search for disappeared people,” and a ban on child combatants.

Does Senator Uribe oppose even this course of action, which promises to protect thousands of civilians from the ravages of war, possibly in a matter of months?

5. Does Senator Uribe support negotiation of anything beyond surrender terms?

The former president says he opposes any negotiation that “holds the military equal to terrorists” and any “discussion of the national agenda with terrorists.” On numerous occasions he has compared negotiating with the FARC to the United States negotiating with Al Qaeda.

Does that comparison take negotiation off the table under any circumstances, other than the terms of the FARC’s surrender? If Uribe insists on that point, the implications would be severe for Colombia.

Fifteen years after “Plan Colombia” began, and thirteen years after then-President Uribe intensified the military’s offensive, the FARC have been reduced by nearly two-thirds. However, that means the guerrillas still have 6,70010,000 members, and perhaps twice as many members of urban militias and rural support networks. If another 15 years of bloody military confrontation were to bring another 2/3 reduction, the FARC in 2030 would be down to perhaps 2,500 members. That is about the same size as the ELN (National Liberation Army, also founded in 1964), Colombia’s second guerrilla group. Today, the ELN still refuses surrender negotiations and has not agreed with the Santos government on an agenda for its own formal peace talks.

If the only option is to force the FARC to surrender, how long would that battlefield campaign take? What would be its cost in dollars, lives, and irreparable harm to victims?

Senator Uribe is welcome here in Washington—but only if he candidly addresses practical questions like these.