The reactions, for and against, former president Álvaro Uribe’s arrest suggest Colombia’s deep divisions will remain in the medium-term and will become a major obstacle for the country to fulfill its development promise. Uribe’s persona, his legacy, and the discord he sows will outlive him and continue cultivating enmity among Colombians for decades to come.
The Supreme Court’s decision to put former president Álvaro Uribe under house arrest for allegedly tampering witnesses and obstructing justice threw a wrench on any possibility for Colombians to pull together at this crucial time. As engaged observers of Latin America, you probably know the particulars of the case surrounding Uribe. They are in every single newspaper around the globe, so I will not bother you with an examination of the facts of the case or its merits. Much still needs to be unraveled and the case will likely continue to make headlines for years to come.
The current predicament concerning Uribe’s judicial fate puts the country at a crossroads, not least because the former president is the most influential person in the country’s recent political history. After all, Uribe himself was president for two terms, anointed Juan Manuel Santos as successor, and later presented the most formidable opposition to Santos to derail the peace agreement with the FARC. Finally, Uribe’s endorsement was fundamental in Iván Duque’s presidential victory.
Whereas Uribe argues his unrelenting passion for Colombia is what keeps him away from retirement, critics point out that the former president’s judicial problems are only just starting.
More important than the case itself is the reaction it generates, which hints at deep divisions within the country, the body politic, and within families. These longstanding feuds are not new, they did not start with the peace agreement between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC, they did not start with Plan Colombia, and they did not originate during La Violencia period in the 1950s. More than a history of violence, the country’s elites have continuously dealt the currency of enmity that remains until today, and the events of last week confirm these divisions will outlive us.
Opponents of Uribe celebrated the Court’s decision to put the former president under house arrest, and await future court proceedings to shed light on other cases involving him. For them, the case is not simply about allegations of bribery and obstruction of justice committed by Mr. Uribe’s attorneys on his behalf, but puts into question the legitimacy of his entire legacy including his tenure at Aerocivil, as Governor of Antioquia, and as President. For many of Uribe’s most fanatical opponents, the former president is nothing short of a war criminal, who got caught for a minor crime—similar to Al Capone going down for tax fraud.
At the same time, supporters of the former president argue that his actions at the time were critical to preventing Colombia from becoming a failed state, recovered trust in the country’s institutions— especially the military—drove a new period of foreign investment in the country, and brought stability to a crumbling political establishment. For many of the most fanatical supporters of Uribe, the court system demonstrated to be corrupt, holds a longstanding grudge against the former president, and has been manipulated against him.
Whatever outcome the courts decide during the trial stage, neither side will entirely be satisfied. Uribe’s judicial fate is certain to provoke a longstanding quarrel to interpret history that will become central to future conflicts in Colombia.
The country’s inability to weave a common narrative through formal channels, such as the National Commission for Historical Memory or the Truth Commission suggests that patches of darkness and confusion will remain for decades to come. A perfect example is how Colombian’s will remember Uribe’s legacy, which intimately involves him in the country’s modern history both as a victim of the FARC and an offender through his alleged ties to paramilitary groups.
This is not the first time the country has a difficult time grappling with its history in a way that affects the present. During La Violencia, unspeakable crimes were committed by conservatives and liberals to the opposing side and became key narratives for both sides to continue perpetuating violence against one another. Before that, the Banana Massacre, in 1928 became a principal complaint of populist left-wing caudillo Jorge Eliecer Gaitán against successive conservative governments for having violently crushed organized labor movements. Before that, the murder of Rafael Uribe by ax-wielding carpenters in Bogotá’s Plaza de Bolivar thrust a series of conspiracy theories concerning his enemies’ motivations— either labor pursuits or revenge following the Thousand Days’ War.
These events became key fissures in Colombia’s social tissue that have been subsequently exploited by politicians on either side for temporary political gain. Neither side “won,” as narratives of wrongdoing and revenge ensure that the circle of violence becomes perpetuated.
Key to all of this is if Uribe’s subsequent trial and verdict will allow Colombians to lay some of their history to rest. At present, this is unlikely. His supporters, of course, will never relent in defending his legacy while minimizing his sins on account of the progress he managed to deliver on security for the country, which came at a very high cost in terms of democratic governance, human rights, and transparency. Opponents of Uribe will not be satisfied with a sentence that falls short of exemplary and will continue to demand answers from Uribe to understand his alleged role in fomenting paramilitary violence.
The country needs leadership that can address this enormous historic divide, and offer relief to heal the wounds of the past. Now, more than ever, the presidency must bring the country together and provide ‘unity of purpose,’ to push forward the necessary reforms to healthcare, the labor system, pensions, and the judicial system. Following these events, it is now less likely that Colombians will pull together to address the common challenges. Instead, Uribe’s detention and subsequent judicial fate will likely spark a new cycle of great political tension, polarization, and perhaps even violence.
Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on twitter @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk
All opinions and content are solely the opinion of the author and do not represent the viewpoints of Global Americans.