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Colombia's Counterintuitive Vote

Prepared by: Alexandra Silver, and Lee Hudson Teslik
Updated: May 30, 2006

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What should the world make of the cakewalk Colombia's Sunday vote turned out to be for center-right incumbent Álvaro Uribe (ElectionGuide.org)? Carlos Gaviria and Horacio Serpa, Uribe's main opponents, drew nowhere near Uribe's 62 percent of votes cast. Their hopes of forcing a runoff by cutting Uribe's share of the vote to less than 50 percent always seemed faint. In the end, they proved nearly nonexistent.

Uribe—who took office in 2002 and recently changed constitutional law so that he could run again—focused his campaign on security (IHT) in the violence-prone nation, plagued by a four-decade-long civil war between leftist guerillas and right-wing paramilitary groups and a resilient drug trade. Experts say his overwhelming popularity is due to pragmatism, not ideology. As Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, put it in this recent CFR Background Q&A, "Uribe has done a masterful job at bringing a measure of security to the country and reassuring people." Uribe's firm-fisted approach—cracking down on the left-wing guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) while striking an amnesty agreement with their rival, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC)—has effectively stifled violence, but the International Crisis Group reports that some of his other putative achievements are questionable. While crime has dropped, critics say Uribe has been too conciliatory toward the paramilitaries, and some allege links (Center for International Policy) between these violent groups and the government. Uribe's security plan has raised some human rights concerns as well, and Amnesty International says under Uribe "there has been no substantive improvement in the human rights situation." Still, greater stability is the undeniably result, and Colombia's voters rewarded it.

Uribe's economic policies are more controversial. The economy has expanded in recent years, but his support for the free trade agreement signed with the United States earlier this year has been a contentious issue within the nation, and differs sharply from the protectionist policies of neighboring countries.

The reelection of a rightist president stands in contrast to the accession of Peru's Ollanta Humala and Bolivia's Evo Morales (BBC), not to mention the rhetoric of the region's ideological godfather, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. But some experts say talk of Latin America's left turn is an oversimplification. Jorge G. Castañeda recently wrote in Foreign Affairs of Latin America's "two lefts," citing Chile's Michelle Bachelet, a moderate socialist, whose policies hardly resemble those of the protectionists and populists. According to the Miami Herald, the region is "more divided than at any time since the end of the Cold War."

Of course, U.S. ties with Latin America have also worsened over the years; in an interview with cfr.org, CFR Senior Fellow Julia Sweig says "they have nowhere to go but up." Washington, which has backed Uribe's security policy, worked with him on the war on drugs, and appreciated his support for a U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, is sure to be pleased to see him returned to office. Some in the United States have criticized U.S. policy on Colombia, summarized in this report from the Congressional Research Service (PDF), and a CFR report makes several suggestions for rectifying U.S. policy in the region. The U.S.-Colombian alliance has led Uribe's opponents to claim the president is overly beholden to American interests: "Colombia has many products to sell, but the country is not for sale" (Pravda) is the refrain of a recent television advertisement supporting Gaviria. But with Colombia's voters fixated on basic security, the rest, apparently, just didn't rate very highly.

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