Colombia after Uribe

If Colombian voters could have their way in next month’s election, Alvaro Uribe would return to the Casa de Narino -- the presidential palace -- on the strength of his 70% approval rating. But the country’s Constitutional Court determined that he could not seek a third consecutive term, and in weeks will come the end of an era.

Most of the contenders to replace Uribe, including the front-runner, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, promise to maintain his hard-line approach to battling the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The conservative president seriously weakened the FARC, which had about 16,000 foot soldiers when he took office but is now down to an estimated 6,000 to 8,000. At the same time, kidnappings and killings have plummeted, and foreign investment has increased fivefold, to $10 billion.

Santos’ career dovetails with Uribe’s. He oversaw the greatest military strikes against the FARC, including one that caused a rift with Ecuador when Colombia bombed a guerrilla encampment over the border and killed a top FARC commander in 2008. He also directed “Operation Checkmate,” a brilliant maneuver in which military personnel duped the rebels into releasing 15 high-profile hostages, including three American contractors and Franco-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt.

Although Uribe’s -- and to some extent Santos’ -- successes are many, they are not unqualified. Right-wing paramilitaries still terrorize rural areas, and political corruption is rife; about one-third of Congress, including many allies of the president, is either accused of or in jail for engaging in “parapolitics” with the death squads. And on Uribe’s watch, the world learned that the army had been killing civilians and claiming they were rebels in order to boost the body count and give the appearance of success. On the diplomatic front, despite his best efforts, Uribe failed to convince the Obama administration to support a much-needed free-trade agreement.

The security and economic issues are not unrelated. The trade pact, which is in the best interests of the U.S., has been held up in Congress by concerns over the assassination of labor organizers in Colombia. Although the Uribe government has increased protection for unionists and has stepped up prosecutions, the violence persists. And the perils faced by organizers go to the heart of the country’s struggle: economic inequality. Colombia’s income gap trails only Haiti’s and Bolivia’s in this hemisphere; 65.4% of rural land, for example, belongs to 1.4% of landowners, according to the national geographic institute.

Uribe understood that prosperity without security is impossible. But if Colombia is to end its decades-long conflict, the next president must move beyond Uribe’s legacy.