Colombian President Álvaro Uribe is one of most popular political figures in the world. During the past seven years, he has rescued Colombia from decades of drug violence, doubled the per capita income and increased the GDP by $150 billion since 2002. With a December approval rating of 69 percent, Uribe could be the hottest thing to come out of Colombia since Shakira showed the world her hips don’t lie. Ironically, this is why, despite his accomplishments and popularity, his most lasting contribution to his country may be his departure from office.
To run for president again, the constitution has to be changed to allow for an unprecedented third term. The move is already under way; but as the Constitutional Court makes its decision in the next few months, Uribe should be preparing to decline. Although another term may be a logical option for Uribe and his supporters, who are eager to maintain prosperity, they need to recognize doing so would jeopardize his legacy and uproot the democracy he has worked to uphold.
The accepting of Uribe III (what locals call it) would be a dangerous step in the wrong direction. Latin America has long been ruled by caudillos, powerful and charismatic leaders who think they are too valuable to go away. We have seen them recently in Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, all who have used referendums to extend their rule indefinitely. According to Newsweek, combined the countries have redrafted their constitutions an astounding 62 times. By contrast, Colombia has reformed its constitution only once since gaining independence. And, overcoming widespread political corruption and the influence of powerful cocaine traffickers in the 1980s and ’90s, Colombia has become one of the strongest democracies in their region.
Aided by the nearly $7 billion dollar Plan Colombia, an anti-drug campaign in 2002, Uribe doubled the size of the army and largely succeeded in making Colombia safer, more stable and prosperous. Colombia has overcome a troubled past, and for the most part upheld a democracy throughout its existence. Uribe needs to recognize his accepting of a third term would be setting a dangerous precedent. He would be asserting Colombia is only capable of being ruled by one man and he has little faith in the democratic process.
Moreover, he would unarguably become a caudillo, placing Colombia on the long list of Latin American countries that have compromised their governments for strong rulers; instead of joining the short list of countries whose rulers have compromised their power in hope of strong countries.
At the turn of the 19th century George Washington removed himself from what would become the most powerful office in the world. Not long after, in 1826, fellow revolutionary Simon Bolivar, the celebrated liberator of much of Spanish South America, established himself as president-for-life in Bolivia. The difference between these two decisions, in combination with the legacy of corruption in colonial Latin America politics, is a major reason why the United States blossomed and Latin America struggled.
Uribe has the unique opportunity to leave his country much better off than when he started. Stepping down from power would not only validate his work, but by defying the caudillo stereotype, would show a true love for his country and allow for Colombia’s democracy to grow. All he has to do is walk away. However, as demonstrated by Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a coup this summer while seeking an extra term in Honduras, this is easier said than done.