I have just interviewed Álvaro Uribe, the controversial ex-president of Colombia. My first question was: “President, the authorities have arrested your agriculture minister, the secretary of the president’s office, and the director of your intelligence services. There are also proceedings against your interior minister and your press secretary. This can only mean one of two things: either you have poor judgment in selecting your senior staff, or a process of judicial hounding is going on against you and your team.” Uribe answered that one can’t generalize, and that each of these cases had to be discussed separately, which he proceeded to do. He is convinced that his colleagues are worthy public servants, innocent of the charges against them (corruption, illegal telephone wiretaps, etc.). The implication is obvious: if so many of his close associates are facing prosecution, and the ex-president thinks they are innocent, then he must think that something strange and ominous is going on.
Attacks on Uribe are also common in the media, where columnists and commentators denounce him constantly and ferociously. This is surprising, for Uribe culminated his presidency with a 75-percent approval rating. And, though the attacks have eroded his support, he is still immensely popular in Colombia, and widely respected abroad.
There are good reasons for this. During his presidency, the country underwent an almost miraculous transformation. At the end of the 1990s, Colombia rivaled Afghanistan on the blacklist of states dominated by the drug trade. Now it shares with Chile and Brazil the short list of successful Latin American countries.
When Uribe came to the presidency, in 2002, the guerrillas and the paramilitary organizations had immense power. More than 300 mayoralties had been abandoned by the government, almost 3,000 kidnapped Colombians were held hostage, and traveling on the nation's main highways was dangerous. Uribe began a no-holds-barred fight against the armed groups, which was largely successful. By the end of his mandate, in 2010, the Colombian state had regained control, and the FARC are now cornered.
The security improvement brought an economic upturn. Colombia has been growing at five percent annually, three points more than the world average. In 2006 it rose to six percent. Almost three million jobs were created, and unemployment fell from 22 percent to 12. Exports tripled, as did foreign investment; inflation fell to 3.7 percent; poverty diminished from 56 percent to 45. Spending on public healthcare and education increased, though the war consumes a lot of public money.
This does not mean that all is well in Colombia. Poverty is still massive and the inequality is intolerable. Corruption continues to be high. The FARC still have some 8,000 men and new criminal gangs have proliferated. Only 15 percent of highways are paved.
When I ask Uribe about his tense relations with his onetime defense minister and now president, Juan Manuel Santos, he answers that he does not wish to talk of “personal woes.” But he is not shy to stress that he feels that his country is backsliding . “I didn’t leave behind a paradise, but I did leave a country moving on the right path, and now I’m worried about how things are going.” Concretely, he complained of the deterioration in the security situation and of “ambiguous signs in international relations and in the defense of democracy.” As for this last point, and referring to his successor’s smoother relations with Hugo Chávez, he was emphatic: “One of the problems is the obsequiousness of certain leaders with dictators. I was never obsequious to these new dictatorships.” In exchange for better relations, “the government of Venezuela has given President Santos some consolation prizes, low-level people in the FARC. The real ringleaders are still given safe havens in Venezuela.”
I also asked Uribe about the unconditional support which the ex-president of Brazil, Lula da Silva, gave to Chávez, and asked him to expand on what he wrote in Twitter: “Lula fought Chávez in his absence and trembled at Chávez in his presence.” Uribe smiled wryly and said: “Let’s leave it at that.”
Lastly I asked him: Why are they attacking you so much in Colombia? “When I made the hard decisions that had to be made, I knew I was treading on very powerful interests – of criminals and their allies installed in society and politics – and I knew they would never forgive me. And I’m paying for it now.”
For his millions of sympathizers this is obvious. For his ferocious critics, this is just another of Uribe’s tricks to silence them. What is very hard to dispute is the fact that Uribe left his country better than how he found it.