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COLOMBIA: Dismal Human Rights Record Has Not Dented Uribe’s Popularity

Constanza Vieira and Helda Martínez

BOGOTA, Aug 6 2010 (IPS) - Colombian President Álvaro Uribe ends his second consecutive term Saturday with 75 percent approval ratings and strong international support reflected by his designation this week as vice chair of a United Nations-appointed international panel to investigate Israel’s attack on a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza in May.

“Firm hand, big heart” was his campaign slogan when he was first swept to power in 2002 on a pledge to step up the war against the FARC guerrillas.

The motto that he has followed daily over the past eight years has been “work, work and more work.”

For the first time, Colombians saw a president travel the width and breadth of the country. His cultivated image as a “sincere” and “frank” man convinced many that he was the best leader the country had ever had.

He won reelection using methods considered illegal, carried out by third parties — a route that he attempted to follow again in his push for a constitutional amendment that would have allowed him to run for a third term. But the Constitutional Court cut that attempt short.

Uribe's social policies

"Welfare-oriented policies running counter to the true application of economic and social rights characterised Uribe's eight years of government," Enrique Daza, director of the non-governmental Centre for Labour Studies, told IPS.

"He distributed the public budget from town to town, as if he were doing people a favour, in the community council meetings that were televised on Saturdays to keep up his image," Daza said.

"Something similar happened with the Families in Action programme," he added, referring to the monthly payment of around 40 dollars to nearly two million elderly people and heads of households.

In the meantime, unemployment stood at 12 percent in July, according to government figures -- "the highest rate in Latin America," Daza said.

Labour and pension reforms reduced benefits and made it more difficult to retire. And "health care is a catastrophe, with extremely poor service which nevertheless leaves private health care providers with a profit margin of 30 percent," the analyst added.

The government acknowledges that 10.5 million of Colombia's 45 million people have no health insurance.

And according to official figures, 20.5 million Colombians are poor, including 7.9 million who live in extreme poverty -- a situation the outgoing president blames on "the global crisis and the discrepancies with Venezuela," one of Colombia's top trading partners.

The main argument he set forth was his strong popularity, which never dipped lower than 64 percent.

Uribe is leaving office in the midst of numerous scandals, and his fiercest critics console themselves by drawing a parallel with former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), who ended up in prison on corruption and human rights charges.

With the end of his term just hours away, he lashed out for the umpteenth time at the justice system, which has taken legal action against his close political allies and even relatives.

His government dipped into public security funds to spy on Supreme Court magistrates, human rights defenders, opposition lawmakers, and journalists, as a former senior official in the DAS, Colombia’s domestic intelligence agency, confessed.

The pressure he exerted for “results” in the counterinsurgency war and the system of military promotions and incentives put in place to encourage high “body counts” eventually led to the scandal over “false positives” — the term used to describe young civilians killed by the army and passed off as guerrilla casualties.

These cases were the most notorious expression of the biggest stain on his legacy: the dismal human rights situation in Colombia.

Another scandal was over the government’s Agro Ingreso Seguro (stable farm income) programme, under which some of the country’s wealthiest landowning families received millions of dollars in subsidies. The programme was designed to provide support to sectors of the economy affected by the free trade agreement with the United States, which never came through.

On the international front, Uribe leaves behind broken diplomatic ties with neighbours Ecuador and Venezuela.

Ecuador broke off relations in early 2008 following a Colombian cross-border raid that bombed a temporary FARC camp in Ecuador. The bombing cut short international negotiations with a rebel chief on the release of hostages held by the insurgent group.

Venezuela severed ties in late July after Uribe once again accused the government of Hugo Chávez of harbouring guerrillas in Venezuelan territory.

A hallmark of the Uribe administration has been an expanded military presence — financed in large part by U.S. military assistance — which has led to a perception of improved security.

Demobilisation and impunity

In 2002, Colombia's elites charged Uribe with the task of reining in the paramilitary militias, which were out of control, while the country observed the collapse of the peace talks with the FARC, which lasted from 1999 to February 2002.

The negotiations to demobilise the paramilitary militias were secret, and produced a law designed by the government: the fighters would confess to some of their crimes in exchange for sentences no longer than eight years, to be served in special prisons.

But the Constitutional Court ruled that only those who provided complete confessions to all of their crimes would be eligible for the lax sentences, which furthermore would be served in ordinary prisons.

Over the space of five years, the measure brought an avalanche of confessions that prosecutors and the justice system in general simply do not have the capacity to process, according to Michael Reed of the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).

For his part, Gustavo Gallón, head of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, said that "ninety-eight percent of the demobilised paramilitaries have gone unpunished."

Common graves containing a total of 3,299 bodies have been located, not counting the latest discovery in the town of La Macarena, where an estimated 2,000 unidentified bodies were recently found.

The real forces behind the paramilitary militias are still in the shadows, although the Supreme Court has made progress in demonstrating that "paramilitarism" is the result of a complex organised power structure, and that the militias' actions constitute crimes against humanity because of their systematic, widespread nature.

But not a single member of the militias has served a sentence for the atrocities committed.

In the meantime, the outgoing government boasts that the homicide rate has been significantly reduced.

He restructured the armed forces, which regained control over key economic areas in the country, including the main highways. The state now has control over territory that contains 60 percent of the population.

According to the Armed Conflict Observatory of the Bogotá think tank Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris (CNAI), the military’s counterinsurgency efforts reduced the size of the FARC forces by 40 percent under Uribe, although the state has yet to recover control over half of the country’s territory of 1.1 million square kilometres.

The fighting, which has been pushed into areas that were not previously major combat zones, now affects 40 percent of the population, mainly in sparsely populated rural areas.

“In general terms, the FARC have maintained their military capacity and the security forces have consolidated their control over the central portion of the country,” the CNAI reported.

The Uribe administration nearly doubled the size of the armed forces, to over 445,000 troops. Defence spending amounts to 3.2 percent of GDP, according to the National Planning Department, or six percent, according to independent analysts.

In late 2009, the CNAI warned that the nearly five-decade long counterinsurgency campaign was once again bogged down. An agreement signed by Uribe to give U.S. forces access to seven military bases signals a clear aim to reach a military breakthrough in the war.

“The local economic and political elites continue to use illegal groups to maintain or expand their capital,” writes CNAI analyst Ariel Ávila, referring to the far-right paramilitary groups that were partially demobilised as a result of talks with Uribe.

In the meantime, the pressing public concern is urban insecurity, apparently related to the demobilisation of thousands of paramilitary fighters. (See sidebar.)

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