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LATIN AMERICA

Tensions flare as former Colombian president Uribe returns as senator

The ex-head of state makes a political comeback four years after he left office

Uribe returns to Congress.
Uribe returns to Congress. AFP

The return of former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) to politics as a senator has raised tensions during the first week of business in Congress. And it is not only because it is the first time a former head of state has returned to parliament or because he is President Juan Manuel Santos’ most fervent adversary. During the first session, Iván Cepeda, one of Uribe’s top rivals and a defender of human rights, invited the new senator to take up a debate regarding his alleged ties to paramilitary groups. Uribe accepted on one condition: that he could answer the accusations in a subsequent session. Meanwhile, his allies in the Senate, fellow members of the incipient Democratic Center party, defended him vehemently.

Uribe’s first appearance is an indication of the tone and a preview of the issues that will come up in discussion in this new Congress. The peace negotiations with the FARC will take center stage. During his discussion with Senator Cepeda, Uribe urged the government to sign the peace accords as soon as possible, the same ones against which he had been campaigned incessantly since November 2012 when the talks began. The former president said the country was under “torture” because the government was “making people dream” while “violent terrorist actions” were on the rise. He called on the administration to sign the peace treaty as soon as possible and then submit it to the Colombian people for review. And Uribe, who remains a popular figure in Colombia, could use that referendum to recharge his batteries by re-emerging as the foremost opponent of the peace process.

Uribe criticized Santos’ management of the economy; his relationships with neighbor countries; the peace process; and increasing insecurity

On the first day of business in Congress, Uribe took notes as Santos called for reconciliation. Then minutes later, he stood up before the Senate and questioned the president’s policies. He criticized Santos’ management of the economy; his relationships with neighbor countries; the peace process, which he said would bring impunity; and increasing insecurity in the country.

Since then, the former president has found himself up against an assembly dominated by Santos supporters. One of them, Luis Fernando Velasco, did not hesitate to say that Uribe’s statements sounded like self-criticism for “what he could have done in eight years [in office] but did not do.” Roy Barreras, a member of the president’s Unión Patriótica party, questioned the figures Uribe used to criticize Santos.

Meanwhile, Uribe’s supporters faced the same challenge in the lower house. Congresswoman María Fernanda Cabal launched into an attack against the peace process, saying it had not taken FARC victims into account. The representative said the government’s meetings with the victims of the armed conflict were “clownish tricks.” These encounters have the backing of the United Nations. They give all victims – regardless who the perpetrator of the crime against them was – a platform where they can offer their suggestions and thus participate in the Havana negotiation process. Santos allies’ kept quiet during Cabal’s speech but Green Party Senator Ángela María Robledo dealt her offending colleague a hard blow. “This is not a conflict between soldiers,” Robledo said. “It targets the civilian population.”

Office size also became an issue during the first week of sessions. Democratic Center party Senator Paloma Valencia compared her space to those received by members of the government coalition. “To those who think they can knock us down by discriminating against us in office assignments,” she wrote on Twitter, “let me tell you that you motivate us to work even harder.”

This first week of sessions made it clear that Uribe will emerge as a major figure in Congress. He and his supporters will confront Santos’ allies and those who support the ongoing peace process. It remains to be seen, however, whether Congress will agree to open a debate on Uribe’s supposed links to paramilitaries. For now, the former president and his allies remain on guard.

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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