Colombians reckon that Álvaro Uribe saved their country. It's a pity for them that so many outsiders don't see their president that way
WHEN hundreds of thousands of Colombians poured into the streets on July 5th to protest at the killing of 11 hostages who had been held by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), President Álvaro Uribe chose to read this as support for his tough security policies. “This demonstration is notice to the international community that we cannot, in this hour of pain, give in to the criminals,” he said. But much of the “international community” no longer sees events in Colombia in the way most Colombians do.
At home Mr Uribe is seen as the saviour of a country that was in danger of being turned into a failed state by the rampaging violence of drug-traffickers, left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries. Since he took office in 2002, violence has fallen sharply. As confidence returns, the economy is growing at 8% a year. According to Invamer-Gallup, a pollster, Mr Uribe's approval rating has remained steady at between 70% and 80% over the past year.
That is despite recent scandals in which a dozen legislators who support him, as well as a former intelligence chief, have been arrested on suspicion of having ties to the murderous paramilitaries; the latest to face investigation is Mario Uribe, a senator and the president's cousin. In the United States and Europe, on the other hand, Mr Uribe's reputation has suffered—so much so that in April Al Gore, America's former vice-president, refused to appear at the same conference as Mr Uribe in Miami.
Reactions to the killing of the hostages highlighted the widening gulf between the perceptions of Colombians and those of the outside world. The hostages were regional legislators who had been held by the FARC for five years. According to the guerrillas they died when an “unidentified military group” attacked the jungle camp where they were being held. Mr Uribe said that there were no government operations on the day in question in the area where officials believe the hostages were held.
The governments of France, Spain and Switzerland have been trying to broker an agreement under which the FARC would swap its well-known hostages, who include three American contractors and Ingrid Betancourt, a politician who holds dual French and Colombian nationality (hundreds more hostages are being held for ransom). Mr Uribe freed scores of guerrilla prisoners. But the FARC insists on the creation of a “demilitarised zone” in which talks should take place. For Colombians, that brings back bad memories of failed peace talks from 1999-2002 in which the FARC used a similar zone for recruitment and criminal activity. Mr Uribe refuses to go down that route again.
After the killing of the 11 hostages, the three European governments condemned hostage-taking. But they also called for an international inquiry into the deaths and urged the government not to use force to rescue captives. Boosted by the demonstrations, Mr Uribe said he could not accept “statements...that measure the FARC and the government by the same yardstick”. Few things rile him more than having his democratic and human-rights credentials questioned internationally.
Yet that is happening more and more. At the end of June the Democratic leadership in America's House of Representatives announced that it would oppose ratification of a free-trade agreement with Colombia until it could see “concrete evidence of sustained results” on reducing violence, on punishing the killings of trade unionists and on prosecuting politicians with links to paramilitaries.
The Democrats did not set any precise benchmarks. But Mr Uribe is in no position to ignore such views. Since 1999 Colombia has received some $5 billion in mainly military aid from America under a plan to fight drug-trafficking and rebel groups of left and right. Until recently, this enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington. Last month, however, the House of Representatives cut the aid by $60m (to $530m) and earmarked more of the money for social and justice programmes (some of these changes may be reversed by the Senate). More...