By David Schoeller-Diaz Contributor March 7, 2010

Over 10,000 phone messages reportedly arrived at the Colombian Presidential Palace within 24 hours of the long awaited Constitutional Court ruling, which barred President Álvaro Uribe from seeking a second reelection. Coming from the Press Chief, we can accept the figure as embellished, but nonetheless, it points to the strong emotions involved.

As the ‘Uribe Era’ comes to a close, less than 150 days of uncertainty remain before the new path of the country is forged. One thing, however, is clear. Colombia’s long-established democracy is stronger today, illuminating institutional autonomy in a region long dominated by populist “caudillos” and military dictators. A third presidential term would have most certainly led to further concentration of power in the executive branch, and more precisely, in the hands of a single dominant figure, threatening the long-term institutional capacity to tackle the evolving threats facing the nation.

For a long time, Colombia has had a paradoxical democracy: simultaneously one of the most resilient in Latin America with a rare history of virtually uninterrupted elections, and one fraught with chronic political violence. While a tradition of democratic elections solidified early on, the state never acquired the heavy-handed measures characteristic of the region. Therefore, while Colombia has been truly privileged to evade the grueling struggle towards democracy, effective nation building never reached far beyond the major cities, allowing illicit activity to flourish. The tough terrain and decentralized character of Colombia make it extremely difficult for a non-state army to existentially threaten the government, but also for the government to patrol its frontier lands against insurgents, paramilitaries, or drug trafficking.

Álvaro Uribe, the Harvard and Oxford-educated Governor of Antioquia, was elected at a time when most Colombians were saying “No Más”, following two highly ineffective presidents. The 1990s saw economic stagnation and a dramatic rise in homicides, kidnappings, and drug production. In the face of this crisis, many international analysts questioned the viability of the state, and increasingly flirted with that grisly label of “failed state.”

During the last eight years, President Uribe has succeeded in becoming the most popular head of state in Colombia’s recent history, consistently holding one of the highest approval ratings anywhere in the hemisphere. The debate on his legacy will continue, particularly during the intense electoral battle likely to come. Nonetheless, despite substantive policy disagreements, most Colombians agree that it is in great part due to President Uribe’s “Democratic Security” strategy that the country has seen drastic crime reduction and a reinvigorated economy, which has even managed to withstand the global recession relatively well. Thousands of paramilitary troops have been demobilized; and for the first time in decades, narco-guerrillas that terrorized communities appear severely weakened. The most palpable change however, has been the cautious revival of hope.

There is a rich electoral landscape and many capable politicians covering the political spectrum. So far, most emerging candidates have vowed to continue a forceful military strategy, while presenting innovative policies towards the evolving security outlook and the pressing development needs. Colombia’s next administration must solidify and broaden progress for all Colombians through strategies that address these interconnected issues. Five crucial matters call for special attention:

1. Keep the resolution of the armed conflict and crime reduction a top priority. This demands a sustained military pressure on militants, prioritizing civilian protection and human rights, while holding an open door for constructive negotiations.

2. Develop a more coherent response to the humanitarian crisis of roughly 3 million internally displaced persons, most struggling to rebuild their lives in sprawling shantytowns. Integrated projects for urban integration, public health, education and employment, will lead to healthier cities and reduce incentives for urban crime.

3. Reinstitutionalize the rural sector, often neglected as ample terrain for militancy and drug production. Responsible land reform may help alleviate the exceptional inequality of land distribution, while strengthening alternative crops and reversing poverty-driven displacement.

4. Stimulate continued commercial activity and protect investor confidence, as part of a wholesome economic policy of inclusive growth and poverty reduction.

5. Intensity efforts to repair diplomatic, security, and commercial relations with neighboring countries, particularly Venezuela, by stressing vital mutual interests.

While Colombia is steadily recovering from the decay of the 1990s, the fragility of the security situation and magnitude of human development needs must not be underestimated. The Constitutional Court ruling against the third term of one of the most influential presidents in Colombian history not only exemplifies the nation’s institutional autonomy, but also ensures a vital opportunity to forge a new path forward while solidifying progress.


David Schoeller-Diaz is a MA candidate of Law and Diplomacy at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, with a concentration on Human Security and Conflict Resolution. He has lived in Latin America, West Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Europe for over 15 years.

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