Alvaro Uribe (Photo: Democratic Center)

Just a few years ago, Alvaro Uribe Velez was riding a 91% approval rating to what looked like a potential third term in what was already one of the more celebrated presidencies in Colombian history. He was seemingly winning a massively popular offensive against the country’s FARC rebels, and was credited with restoring the country from the brink of chaos.

Once the subject of heaping praise, Uribe is now the target of tomatoes and loud insults, hurled at him in public squares by angry mobs at campaign stump events across the country. 

“Uribe, you’re a paraco [paramilitary]! Get out! Boyaca doesn’t want you, can’t you see?”

This was the scene last Friday in Tunja, the capital of the central Colombian state of Boyaca. Uribe’s attempts to appeal to the crowd assembled in the city’s Plaza Bolivar were drowned out by screams of “liar, liar!” “we want a decent life!” and “just like we elected you, we’re going to bring you down!”

Cesar Pachon, the spokesperson for the “Dignidad Papera” farmers movement appears interspersed with a video recording of the scene, commenting on the humiliating event for the country’s former president.

“A common, ordinary person now has the courage to speak the truth, and state things as they are in this country,” he said, in a video that has since gone viral.

Only days after his disastrous stint in Tunja, Uribe would narrowly avoid a projectile tomato launched at his person in Soacha, a city near Bogota and the birthplace of what is now the most infamous stain on the Uribe presidency, the so-called “false positives” scandal. The corpses of 11 young men from the city, found in a mass grave in the northeast of the country, were the first indication of what has since proven to be a widespread tactic employed by the Colombian military throughout the first six years of Uribe’s administration, in which at least 5,000 civilians were kidnapped and murdered by Colombian soldiers, dressed up as rebels and reported as fallen guerrilla troops in exchange for bonuses and paid vacations.

At another campaign rally in the southwestern city of Palmira, Uribe was once again surrounded by an angry crowd, and police were forced to act to avoid riots.

After eight years of closely controlled media imaging during the Uribe presidency, the scandals behind the secrecy have begun to catch up to Colombia’s once golden leader.

Uribe himself has managed to avoid sentencing for any wrongdoing, but family members and political allies have fallen one-by-one to allegations of parapolitics, corruption and narcotrafficking.

The growing backlash against the former president has trapped Uribe and his followers in a form of political paralysis. Unable to gather enough support to run candidates in several states, the Uribista movement, founded in Uribe’s name and political ideologies, as represented by the  Democratic Center party, is struggling to emerge from the shadow cast by its leader’s dark history.

The Uribe-faithful lost pitifully in the 2011 elections. A reported 90% of all candidates supported by the former president failed, including in Uribe’s birthplace and one-time stronghold, the state of Antioquia.

MOREUribe loses big in Colombia’s local elections

And according to insiders, Congress only counts six seats still occupied by loyal “Uribistas.”

What’s more, ongoing allegations of criminal activity and growing unpopularity have pushed the former president from the limelight, as mainstream media outlets have begun the slow process of ousting Uribe-loyal columnists from their publications, reducing his capacity to reach large audiences to his personal Twitter account.

The steady way down

While in office, Uribe’s approval ratings peaked at 91% in the aftermath of Operation Jaque, in which the six-year kidnap victim and former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was rescued from the FARC, the country’s oldest rebel group.

Now, Uribe’s ratings are drooping below 60%, his lowest yet.

Uribe’s approval ratings

For the time being, Uribe’s political future remains intact. Despite poor campaign performances, he is still expected to win back his former seat in the Colombian Senate this March.

What’s dwindling, then, is the influence he carries over the mainstream discourse, and the meaning of his legacy as Colombia continues moving forward.

In 2006, Uribe was re-elected with the highest margin of victory in the whole of Colombia’s political history. Nevertheless, only months into the term of his successor and former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, a seemingly endless Pandora’s box of conspiracy began to leak from what had been a tighly contained public image.

Members of the president’s inner and outer circles were already under observation and investigation by the Colombian authorities toward the end of his second term.

But it wasn’t until Uribe left the presidential palace that the full extent of his administration’s dubious practices came to light.

A number of Uribe’s family members and political allies were convicted or accused of participating in parapolitics — political association with illegal paramilitary groups — following the revelations of 2006′s paramilitary demobilization process.

It was not long before the former president himself was implicated in a number of parapolitical activities, with various high-level political operatives and paramilitary leaders indicating that Uribe was at the center of Colombia’s extensive paramilitary structure.

Uribe and the Supreme Court had mutually accused each other of corruption during his term, and new charges were leveled against him during numerous subsequent investigations, including the unlawful wiretapping of numerous officials, conspiracy against the Supreme Court judges – who at the time were busy prosecuting many of his associates for parapolitics – and the illegal use of public money.

A scandal still fresh in the minds of the rural communities were Uribe has received so much backlash as of late is that of the “Agro Ingreso Seguro,” a benefit fund introduced by Uribe and intended to stimulate the farming industry, later revealed as an embezzlement scheme of massive proportions. Millions of dollars did not reach labor workers but instead went directly into the hands of some of the country’s more wealthy families.

Although Uribe has consistently denied all allegations against him, his image among the Colombian people has suffered a heavy blow. His approval ratings have been steadily deteriorating since leaving office, dropping nearly ten points in between 2011 and 2012 alone. And with on-going criminal investigations being brought against him in the Congress, Uribe does not have as many people as he once did to vouch for him in the halls of power.


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