A year in, Uribe racing to reform

Published Aug. 4, 2003|Updated Sept. 1, 2005

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is on a mission with no time to lose.

Acting as though the very survival of his country is at stake, he runs his government at such a pace, few can keep up.

At his desk until the wee hours, he rises before dawn, and his ministers are run ragged.

"What has frustrated me the most is the slow speed of our state to respond to people's needs," said Uribe, interviewed recently after a 4:30 a.m., hourlong jog around the perimeter of a military base in Arauca, one of Colombia's most violent provinces. "In Colombia people's problems are aggravated very fast and the solutions come very slowly."

But for the first time in Colombia's vicious, decadeslong, drug-fueled conflict, there are signs that things are beginning to change. Only a year after taking office Aug. 7, 2002, Uribe has inspired renewed hope for the future among his once despairing countrymen.

"He is performing better than anyone could reasonably have expected," said Michael Shifter, vice president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. "In contrast to previous leaders there's a sense that someone is in charge. That is a refreshing comfort compared to what they had in the past."

U.S. officials are equally flattering. "The results of a year of his hard work are . . . impressive," White House drug czar John Walters said during a visit to Colombia last month.

"A year ago people said he was too ambitious. Not only has he done all those things, he's done them . . . with a level of accomplishment beyond what he originally spoke of."

On paper, the results do indeed look good. Drug cultivation is down 30 percent, and so are kidnappings. The balance of the war appears to be shifting in the government's favor, and a once-slumping economy is showing signs of growth.

But analysts warn it is still way too early to declare victory, as some Colombian officials have. "There are some encouraging trends and some data that one should feel good about, but it's certainly premature to believe that the situation is under control," Shifter said.

While drug cultivation has plummeted in some regions because of intensified, U.S.-funded aerial eradication, it is rising elsewhere. Assistance for peasant farmers to plant alternative crops has achieved next to nothing.

For all their progress, the Colombian army and police will continue to rely heavily on U.S. aid "for the foreseeable future," according to a recent report by the U.S. General Accounting Office.

Though Uribe has increased the military and police presence in the countryside, political violence remains high at about 7,000 killings a year, according to human rights groups.

However, even Uribe's detractors say it could be worse. "We really thought he was going to take the war to the guerrillas," said Adam Isacson, who monitors Colombia at the Center for International Policy, a watchdog group in Washington. "But we have not seen a real escalation of violence."

Uribe's popularity is slightly down from a postelection high of 75 percent, but remains a very robust 64 percent.

Uribe's strong public perception has eased the pressure on the Bush administration in congressional debates over its massive foreign aid budget for Colombia, now the third-highest recipient of U.S. largess after Israel and Egypt (not including wartime budgets for Iraq and Afghanistan). Congress is expected to approve a further $688-million in aid for next year, which would push the total spending on Colombia over $3-billion since 2000.

His main goal has been a policy of what he calls "democratic security," to recover state control over regions where rival forces of left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries have held sway for decades. He also has sworn to eliminate coca and poppy crops cultivated for the production of cocaine and heroin.

The balance of the war also appears to have shifted. Paramilitary commanders announced a cease-fire and began peace talks with the government. The guerrillas have failed to mount a major military attack in months, and have suffered increased desertions.

Uribe's presidency literally began with a bang. Guerrillas launched a rocket attack on the presidential palace moments before the new president was due to be sworn in, killing 13 bystanders.

Almost immediately after taking office, Uribe announced a package of measures to seize the initiative away from the country's three main illegal armed groups, whose armies collectively number about 40,000 men, financed by drugs, kidnapping and extortion.

Calling himself the "first soldier" of Colombia, Uribe declared a brief state of emergency, granting special powers to the military. In his first week he levied a surprise onetime wealth tax to raise $800-million for the war effort.

U.S. aid and internal reforms within the military have begun to improve the performance of the Colombian military.

The Arauca visit was typical Uribe. The president stayed three days with his entire government in tow.

Ever conscious of troop morale, he greeted groups of soldiers he passed during seven laps around the base with a friendly "Good morning, boys!" When he is in Bogota, he runs on a treadmill or works out on a stationary bike. To stay in mental shape he also breaks up his work day with short yoga sessions, accompanied by homeopathic drops.

The trip itself was a risky act of defiance aimed at the rebels. The idea was to show the state was present and in control. But the fact that he had to govern from a military base showed it was more wishful thinking.

During his stay, suspected rebels knocked out power in a large part of the province, and a grenade killed one person and injured seven in a nearby town. Just two hours after he left, a car bomb exploded near the school where he held a town meeting. The same school was bombed in October just an hour before he was due to arrive in the town.

Despite several assassination attempts, these are the risks Uribe is prepared to take. Rather than the lengthy and luxurious foreign trips enjoyed by some Latin American heads of state, Uribe prefers to stay home and attend to business, however unglamorous and unpleasant that might be.

As an example to the rest of the government, Uribe has reduced the budget and staff of the Office of the President and eliminated three government ministries.

His austere work ethic is reflected in his personal attire. One senior U.S. official noted that Uribe, who is 51, does not indulge in expensive tailored suits or broad silk ties, instead going for a more nerdy, off-the-rack look. His ties are narrow and dull.

He often stays up until 2 a.m., phoning police and army commanders to check on security in different regions. On weekends he holds marathon town hall meetings, called community councils, in different towns and cities to address local problems. He drags his ministers along and makes them answer directly to the community about public works projects and health and education issues.

Last week he went a step further, hauling his entire Cabinet in front of television cameras to answer call-in and e-mail questions.

"He's making himself answerable to the whole country, which is something governments haven't done here before. It's awesome," said Luz Nagle, a former Colombian judge who now teaches at Stetson College of Law in Gulfport.

But she worries that Uribe's hands-on style _ critics call it micromanagement _ could backfire by undermining the authority of his ministers and public institutions.

"He wants to be in every municipality trying to hear the pains and concerns of every citizen," Nagle said. "That's fine for the first year, but is it sustainable? At some point you have to delegate and show trust in the people under you."

At the Cristo Rey school in Arauca, the community meeting lasted 10 hours. Uribe listened intently to residents who wanted to know why the government had frozen the province's royalties from the local oil industry. He was blunt: "We did not freeze the royalty payments on a whim. We froze them because the money was being stolen."

Government officials estimate that 30 percent of the royalties ended up with local guerrilla commanders who demand a cut of any public works contract in the province. Uribe's comment silenced the crowd for a heartbeat, then drew a thunder of applause.

"The guy is amazing. He's tough but natural and so approachable," said one man at the meeting who declined to give his name because, despite what the president would like, the guerrillas still hold power.

Ministers and advisers admit they struggle to keep up with Uribe's demanding work schedule. To catch up on sleep, some ministers have resorted to renting apartments near the palace.

"No one knows how he does it," said Claudia Morales, Uribe's adviser for international media. "And he's always complaining that there aren't enough hours in the day. He says he wishes the day would dawn at 4 a.m. and that the sun would set around midnight."

Some are concerned about the effect on the president's own health.

"But those who know President Uribe say that he has worked at this pace all his life with no apparent ill effects," said Fernando Cepeda, a Colombian academic and political consultant, who calls Uribe a committed reformer.

But time is short for Uribe. Under Colombia's political system presidents are elected every four years and may serve only one term.

Uribe's supporters say that, too, will have to be reformed.

_ Times correspondent Sibylla Brodzinsky reported from Colombia; Times Latin America correspondent David Adams reported from Miami.