Mr. Uribe has been for Colombia what Churchill was for Britain and Reagan was for the U.S. He took office in 2002 when the FARC's reign of terror had brought his nation to its knees. In six years he has reversed the slide into anarchy and today, half-way through his second four-year term, most of the country is pacified. Murders and kidnappings are down sharply; FARC defections and battlefield defeats are mounting; the economy is booming.
With an approval rating of around 80%, so too are Mr. Uribe's political fortunes. And as I listen to his views on governance, it occurs to me that this has come to pass not only because of his bravery and moral clarity, but also because he came along when his country most needed him.
In 1998, four years before he became president, Colombia had engaged in a so-called peace process with the FARC. This included ceding a chunk of territory the size of Switzerland to the rebels as a sign of good faith.
Thank you for your wonderful report and picture of the Colombian situation. I also see several US newpapers reporting the improved economic condition that the country is currently enjoying.I am one of those persons who had to leave the country many years ago or run the risk of being kidnapped or,worse yet,killed. God bless, Alfonso.
That special zone was supposed to be off-limits to Colombian authorities for only three months – but more than three years later it was still a guerrilla safe haven, on the grounds that the "dialogue" was ongoing. Meanwhile, the FARC used the area to hide weapons and hostages, prepare new assaults on civilians, and gain the upper hand in the conflict. By the time Mr. Uribe ran for office, the nation was near despair.
I ask the president to recollect that time. He pauses for a moment, as he often does before he speaks. Then he tells me of three observations he made during the 2002 campaign that shaped his thinking. The first came during a series of visits to universities, where he would ask how many students wanted to leave Colombia with "no return ticket." He says the "vast majority" always raised their hands.
The second was that in many regions of the country "people wanted to solve their problems by themselves, without resorting to our institutions. For them our institutions did not exist or they did not trust them." The third observation, he says, came during a meeting with World Bank officials who told him that they were beginning to worry that Colombia "was going to the point of a failed state."
I knew we had to create confidence," he says, and that it had to be done fast. "We had to try to produce short-term results in order to convince the people that we were able to produce long-term victories." He built a plan not only to return law and order, but also to boost the economy and build the wealth necessary to address the social problems of poverty. To this day, that plan rests on three pillars: "security, investment and social cohesion."
Investment has been pouring into Colombia in recent years; absent the FARC thugs, it is a prime location for doing business. The Uribe government has also been beavering away at deregulating and improving the commercial climate.
The results are impressive: The investment rate as a percentage of GDP in the first nine months of 2007 was 27.5%, compared to less than 15% in 1999. Yet Mr. Uribe is no market liberal. His economics are closer to those of Tony Blair than to Margaret Thatcher's, and if you give him the chance, he loves to talk about his government's social programs.