BOGOTA, Colombia – On his inauguration day eight years ago, leftist guerrillas tried to kill Colombian President Alvaro Uribe with a rocket and mortar attack. The U.S. government had drawn up contingency plans for a rebel-led government, and citizens were hunkering down in their homes at night in fear.
As Colombians who lived through those dark days know, Uribe today will turn over a far safer country to his successor, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, who was elected in a June landslide after promising to continue Uribe’s policies.
With billions in U.S. aid under Plan Colombia, the hard-line Uribe knocked the FARC guerrilla group on its heels, giving the government the upper hand in its four-decade-long struggle against insurgents. Expanded ranks of police have sharply reduced violent crime in cities. A tripling in foreign investment since 2003, mainly in mining, energy and tourism, is fueling an increasingly dynamic economy.
“We were overwhelmed with our problems when he took office,” said Mauricio Cardenas, a Colombian economist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Now we’ve regained self-esteem and fundamentally Colombia has become more of a nation.”
But Uribe leaves a troubling legacy in human rights violations and possible abuses of power. Under pressure to raise body counts, the military may have killed hundreds of civilians and tagged them as guerrilla casualties. And despite the massive infusion of U.S. aid, Colombia remains the world’s largest producer of cocaine.
“What Uribe achieved is really remarkable. But the issues are the collateral damages in human rights and how to remedy them,” said Jorge Castaneda, a former Mexican foreign minister and presidential candidate and now a professor at New York University.
While promising to continue Uribe’s get-tough security policies, Santos acknowledges that his most pressing challenges are socioeconomic. Colombia’s poverty rate – 46 percent of the population – is among Latin America’s highest. Unequal income distribution worsened under Uribe, while the informal economy of people working under the government radar grew, said Francisco Thoumi, a Colombian economist and former Latin American studies professor at the University of Texas.