Uribe Keeps His Enemies Closer
[Commentary] In Colombia, you silence your detractors by having them work for you
Carlos Arturo Serrano Gómez
Published 2007-09-14 12:46 (KST)
Horacio Serpa made use of the most aggressive TV commercials he could pay for. He presented himself as the ultimate peacemaker, and never missed the chance to speak against his adversary, Alvaro Uribe. In 2002, the Colombian presidential campaign used to be described in the cosmic language of good versus evil. Serpa stopped short of calling Uribe a paramilitary chief in disguise.
When Uribe won the elections, he surprised everybody by appointing Serpa, his most caustic critic, as his ambassador before the Organization of American States. Serpa, in his turn, surprised everybody by accepting. During the first half of his term, Uribe could boast of having cast his opponent hundreds of miles abroad, where nobody would heed his fatalistic warnings. Worse still, he had to speak well of the Uribe administration for a living.
Serpa resigned in time to run for presidency again in 2006, but Uribe had already made his point. The nation had been shown how easy it was to buy Serpa's loyalty; as a result, his ideological credibility was undermined, and his political career was, for all practical purposes, ended.
The tactic of winning enemies for his side has been quite profitable for President Uribe. At the same time that he had Serpa serving as his envoy in Washington, he sent another one of his campaign adversaries, Noemi Sanin, to the embassy in Spain. Shortly after, she began speculating on the possibility of electing Uribe for a second term. The idea gained acceptance, the Congress discussed it fervently, and the Constitution was modified. Uribe still holds his seat. So does Sanin.
Considering such antecedents, Uribe's recent decision to allow two of the most prominent left-wing figures at the moment, Liberal Party senator Piedad Cordoba and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, to act as mediators in the Colombian violence crisis in order to bring about an eventual release of the people held captive by FARC and the recommencement of peace talks, comes as little surprise.
Our current president has employed an almost purely militaristic approach to the problem of guerrilla groups. During the recent decade, we have heard once and again the opposition parties and some relatives of prisoners argue for the attenuation of military action in favor of a more conciliatory tone. We should, as they claim, negotiate the release of all kidnapped people. FARC claims to be ready to enter such a process as soon as the government sets a demilitarized zone for talks. They often demand huge territories to be cleared of army presence, as was the case during the failed negotiations held under the Pastrana administration. Uribe, however, is adamant in his position that such a concession is out of the question. Both FARC and Uribe acuse each other of lack of willingness to talk. Meanwhile, the prisoners and their families are waiting.
Cordoba and Chavez are Uribe's political antipodes. While the Venezuelan ruler's opinions and reputation hardly need any detailing (mostly because he already undertakes the task of self-propaganda with little need of help), the Colombian senator is known almost exclusively in our local politics. She is famous here for being a strong critic of the Uribe administration and for having dared advance the issues of oppressed minorities against a heavily conservative establishment. (For example, when she proposed a modest law that would grant some economic rights to homosexual couples, the officialist parties mobilized until they had it repealed at the last minute.)
Then why did Uribe choose these two as his helpers in this most delicate of topics? One reason is that in this way they'll relieve him of doing the dirty job. It's not like Uribe to negotiate. It's just not his style. He likes to run the nation as if he were still running his family farm: yelling orders and shooting trespassers. The technicalities of dialogue are beyond him. Cordoba and Chavez, for their part, love to talk. Sometimes they talk more than we're ready to put up with. They're both popular left-wing icons whom FARC will happily have lunch with. They seem the perfect choice for a job Uribe doesn't feel like attempting.
There's also Uribe's well-known custom of shutting up his enemies' mouths by forcing them to sing his tune. While his two new aides are busy working along his policy lines, they won't have much time for, nor anything to gain from, further criticizing his administration. In the case of Cordoba, this appointment has a distinct undertone of, "So you want dialogue, why don't you try it?" She has insisted on the moral superiority of humanitarian solutions to the conflict so many times that Uribe seems to have created for her the unique opportunity to prove herself wrong. As for Chavez, he is now tacitly committed to the uncomfortable responsibility to prove he's really not a clandestine supporter of FARC.
They, not Uribe, will be accountable for the result of this process. Furthermore, they will be accountable to him, not to the citizens. Moreover, all those who said Uribe was not fond of dialogue will be left with no argument to raise. Our president has cleverly turned the situation into one where he has nothing to lose.
It was said once that diplomacy was the art of letting others have your way. Alvaro Uribe may not be the best thinker available, but he certainly knows how to shield himself from his opponents. He puts them in a situation where it is no longer safe to be against him.