Review: Latin America needs more Uribes
By Raul Gallegos
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
Latin America needs more leaders like Alvaro Uribe. “No Lost Causes,” the former Colombian president’s account of his administration, may at times be self-serving. But it shows how he helped turn a war-torn Colombia from a near-failed state to a top investment destination. Uribe’s security gains remain frail, but his successes dwarf those of his leftist peers in Latin America.
Uribe’s story is as remarkable as it is unlikely. When he took office in 2002, a weak government was quickly losing a war against right-wing militias and one-time Marxist rebels, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The insurgents were financed by extortion, kidnappings and a flourishing drug trade. At its worst, the drug business accounted for more than 6 percent of GDP and Colombians paid as much as $350 million in ransom to criminals annually.
The economy was in shambles. GDP grew a mere 1.9 percent in 2002 and foreign direct investment inflows, at a four-year average of $2.3 billion a year, were nearly half those of neighboring Venezuela. The country was widely considered one of the most dangerous places to live, visit or do business.
But by halfway through Uribe’s eight-year tenure, the militias were decimated and FARC was a shadow of its former self. Kidnappings had dropped by 80 percent and homicides by half. By the time Uribe left in 2010, annual GDP growth was averaging 4.5 percent. And foreign investment had risen four-fold to $8 billion a year, mostly due to a thriving oil sector. The market capitalization of Colombia’s state-owned Ecopetrol, which sold 20 percent of its shares to the public under Uribe, now rivals that of BP.
Uribe walks readers through the turnaround. As president he deployed the military to secure the country’s main thoroughfares for the first time in years. This allowed Colombians to travel and do business within their own country. His administration rewarded citizens for tips leading to the capture of key insurgents and made the elimination of top FARC leaders a military priority. Crucially, his successes helped him convince Colombia’s wealthy to endure higher taxes to help fund military spending. He later offered tax exemptions to foster job creation.
Uribe’s personal travails make the book read like a spy novel. A 30-year old Uribe lost his father to FARC guerrillas. As he rose in politics he personally endured countless threats and survived scores of kidnapping and assassination attempts. When he was a senator in the early 1990s, leftist guerrillas determined to stop his push to reform social security placed a bomb in a hotel room next to his. He barely survived. Years later, as a governor, Uribe even exchanged machine gun fire with guerrillas as he and his aides suffered an ambush.
But the steely persona that earned Uribe consistent 70 percent approval ratings masks a less flattering side. In his drive to change Colombia he tacitly encouraged supporters to push a constitutional reform that could grant him a third term as president. Thankfully for Colombia’s democracy, this never materialized. And his reputed links to paramilitary groups during his time as governor remain under investigation. Uribe barely touches on those issues in his book.
Yet his achievements still outshine his misses. Poverty fell by more than half to 22 percent under his tenure, most of it through job creation. Just next door, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez has spent billions of dollars of oil revenue making the poor dependent on state handouts. Guerrilla attacks remain an issue, but Colombia as a country is safer and richer. That is a cause worth fighting for.