Colombia's Uribe Seen as Solidifying Power
Opponents Say Widely Popular President Is Toughening Stance Against Critics

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 17, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia -- President ¿lvaro Uribe has overwhelming influence in many of this country's institutions and enjoys the support of 70 percent of his countrymen.

But lately, opposition leaders contend, the president has been showing little tolerance for critics at a time when his allies have accumulated broad power. Such concerns have grown as Uribe considers a constitutional change that would allow him to run for a third four-year term.

Last month, Uribe disparaged the Supreme Court just days after it launched an investigation of the president's cousin, former senator Mario Uribe, for alleged ties to paramilitary groups. Then, Uribe warned Bogota voters not to cast ballots for "mayors supported by the guerrillas," a reference to the leftist Democratic Pole party's candidate, Samuel Moreno.

Uribe has also accused Jos¿ Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch, of collaborating with rebels and has publicly derided two prominent journalists, causing one to go into exile after he received death threats.

In a sign of U.S. wariness over Uribe's sharp tongue, 11 Democratic senators, including Barack Obama (Ill.), Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), sent the president an unusually blunt letter this month saying they were concerned that his comments could put others in danger. Death squads and drug-trafficking groups have frequently killed rights workers, union activists and journalists, often after accusing them of belonging to the rebel groups at war with the state.

"While Colombian officials may view the situation differently, we caution against unfounded, personal attacks which could endanger people's safety or undermine the independence of the judiciary," said the letter, obtained by The Washington Post. "We believe strongly that civil society organizations have an essential role to play in strengthening democracy and human rights in every country."

Vice President Francisco Santos, in an interview, said the president has been defending himself against attacks he felt were unwarranted. "He's frank, and that's the person Colombians elected," Santos said. "We know where he stands. He's clear in his positions, doesn't hide what he thinks, and that's a virtue."

The largest recipient of U.S. aid outside the Middle East and Afghanistan, Uribe's government has sharply reduced violence, overseen an economic boom and aggressively attacked drug production. Washington has provided his administration with $4 billion in mostly military aid, and Uribe's performance has won deep admiration from Bush administration officials, who see the Colombian government as a bulwark against Venezuelan President Hugo Ch¿vez, a populist Washington opposes.

"The bravery of President Uribe is, I personally think, almost breathtaking given what he's accomplished here," John P. Walters, the White House drug policy chief, told reporters in Bogota this month.

Many Colombians feel the same, polls show. Political analysts say it's not just the results of Uribe's policies that appeal to his countrymen, but his image as a workaholic wonk coupled with his folksy, populist style -- on display in weekly town hall meetings where he scolds ministers and promises services to ordinary people.

Supporters in the president's governing coalition have proposed a referendum to permit Uribe to run for a third term, which would repeat a 2004 constitutional change that allowed him to run for a second term. Though the president deftly avoids questions about his political future, he frequently casts himself as the only man who can govern a complex country and hold back guerrillas.

This month, he ignited a controversy here after saying he would seek reelection if there were a "catastrophe" -- what his allies later defined as the failure of the president's governing coalition to decide on a single candidate for the 2010 presidential election.

The specter of a third term has troubled constitutional experts who say Uribe is consolidating control at the expense of independent institutions. It's also generated comparisons to Ch¿vez, who is advocating changes to the Venezuelan constitution that would permit him to run for office indefinitely.

"Uribe has had the good fortune of having an American administration worried about Venezuela and Ch¿vez," said Myles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador to Bogota who is supportive of some of Uribe's policies. "They have remained, publicly at least, silent about clear evidence that Uribe has autocratic tendencies and does not accept opposition from within Congress and the courts."

Mar¿a Jimena Duz¿n, a newspaper columnist who wrote a well-regarded biography of Uribe, "How Uribe Governs," said that while "there is freedom of speech" in Colombia, opposition groups feel browbeaten by the president's aggressive style. "Each day we see less of an opposition, as happens in Venezuela with Ch¿vez," she said.

Now in his sixth year in office, Uribe has allies in control of Congress, the central bank and the attorney general's office, as well as regulatory offices responsible for investigating corruption and rights abuses. His influence in the nine-member Constitutional Court, the nation's highest court, grew markedly after the Senate recently approved Uribe's nomination of Mauricio Gonz¿lez, his legal counsel, to fill a vacancy.

Carolina Barco, the Uribe administration's ambassador in Washington, said that, as in the United States, a second-term leader in Colombia has the legal right to name more officials and wield influence in appointments. She also said that Colombians approve, having reelected Uribe last year in a landslide. "This is an expression of the will of Colombians," she said.

Constitutional experts, though, said Uribe's second term has permitted him to accumulate the kind of influence framers of the country's constitution sought to avoid. "The 1991 constitution was created to balance the powers, but reelection broke that balance," said Ramiro Bejarano, a political analyst and former director of the state intelligence service.

A one-term leader, for instance, would have named only three of the seven central bank board members. But Uribe has appointed three already and may appoint as many as four more. Uribe will also, in this second term, directly nominate two more Constitutional Court judges.

In the constitution, "there was a strong effort to control and counterbalance the president," said Rodrigo Uprimny, director of DeJusticia, a Bogota research institute that studies constitutional issues and receives aid from the United States. "What makes his influence so decisive is the combination of reelection and a strong congressional majority."

Santos, the vice president, disagrees with suggestions that Uribe has excessive influence, saying Colombia's institutions are independent. "What's been very strong here is the separation of powers," he said.

And, to be sure, perhaps the most prominent independent institution in Colombia is now the Supreme Court, which has been investigating ties between paramilitary groups and members of Congress, most of them allies of the president.

Political analysts say independence may have prompted Uribe to recently accuse the court's lead investigator of conspiring against him. Court officials characterized the president's words as inappropriate interference and lashed back.

"It was an obstruction, a way of delegitimizing the work of the court," Cesar Julio Valencia, the court's president, said in an interview. "The principle of the separation of powers implies that the head of one can never inappropriately interfere in the role of the other powers."

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