By Alejandra Labanca
For Álvaro Uribe Vélez, restoring the faith of Colombians in their own country was his major task during eight years as president.
The undertaking was daunting in a nation torn apart by more than four decades of violence that had claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced millions more people from their homes.
But Uribe said that this kind of challenge was a basic fact of life, and he did not shy away.
Life is about “a permanent effort,” Uribe told Latin Trade. “Difficulties are relative to the effort, if there is a total will, the difficulties are diminished, reduced to normal.”
After his hard-fought political and personal career propelled him into the presidency at age 47, it was clear that Uribe, already a veteran of Colombia’s violence, was convinced that the country and its leadership had no choice but to help Colombia recover its institutions.
Uribe’s resilient attitude appeared to be shaped by several heavy blows, including the 1983 death of his father at the hands of the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Uribe called his father’s death a “painful moment,” but noted it was one of many.
At the time of Uribe’s first presidential inauguration in 2002, Colombia had already emerged from a bloody struggle with drug cartels. Still, armed groups — either right-wing paramilitaries or leftist guerrillas — controlled much of the country, and Colombians were leery of even driving on highways outside of the main cities.
“People of my generation have not lived a single day of peace,” Uribe used to say on the campaign trail when he was running for his first term in office on a platform of “Democratic Security, ” which advocated a hard-line stance against the guerrillas. When he launched that campaign, the initial polls indicated that fewer than 25 percent of the electorate supported him. On election day in 2002, Uribe won 54 percent of the vote.
Colombians were also swayed by Uribe’s image as a battle-scarred victor of many battles. He was the top student in his class before going on to earn a law degree at the University of Antioquia. He served as mayor of his hometown, Medellin, a major business city in the country, carrying on when his father was kidnapped and killed. He later spent eight years in the Colombian Senate before becoming the governor of Antioquia in 1995.
When Uribe stepped down after eight years as president in August 2010, Colombia had become a different place. Its economy is thriving. It is expected to grow at a rate of 6 percent this year and the country is on the verge of earning an investment grade rating for its sovereign debt. Multinational companies, which once steered clear of the country, now consider it among the top markets in Latin America. Uribe revived interest among Colombian and international business executives to do business in Colombia. With confidence restored, the investment rate rose from 15 per cent of gross domestic product when he took office in 2002 to 25 percent at the end of his second term. Uribe earned the respect of the business community; through to the end of his presidency, his speeches before business and trade groups invariably closed with a long applause.
The former president also put an end to the climate of fear and managed to create a safer environment by demobilizing and neutralizing paramilitaries and guerrillas alike. The number of kidnappings fell dramatically. It became safe to drive on the highways.
“Many Colombians had lost faith.” Uribe said. “As president of Colombia, my greatest achievement was to create awareness among the people that the country could be secure, prosperous and equitable,” he said.
The exceptional results in Colombia did not come about by chance.
Uribe noted that the best advice he ever heard was “to always go the extra mile, never believe that everything is done.”
Taking a lead from the business world, where good CEOs and executives create a culture of hard work and excellence, Uribe shunned the lyrical speeches full of generalities typical of Colombian politics and made decisions based on figures, targets and outcomes.
A methodical and demanding politician, Uribe’s high level of expectations resulted in 20-hour days for him and the members of his administration.
Even so, he said he would try to do even more, if he had to do it over again.
“I would have accelerated what I had not been able to achieve…without straying from the path that had as its objective building confidence bolstered by the quest for security with democratic values, the confidence of investors with solidarity and social cohesion with freedom,” Uribe said.
Since leaving office, he has maintained a busy schedule, giving classes at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and serving as vice-chair of the United Nations Panel of Inquiry into the Gaza flotilla violence in May.
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