Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is riding an unprecedented wave of support in the wake of the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other rebel-held hostages—a wave further fueled by dramatic images of the operation released this week by the Colombian military. The FARC insurgents have suffered yet another crippling blow in the space of a few months, including the death of their legendary leader "Tirofijo." Uribe's public approval rating hit 91 percent in the most recent poll.
Now, Uribe faces the pitfalls of his own success: He must continue to strengthen Colombia's democracy by stepping down when his second term expires in 2010.
Just six years ago, many feared that Colombia was on the brink of becoming a failed state. The Marxist guerillas that had warred against the national government for almost 40 years controlled an area the size of Switzerland. Thousands of kidnappings and assassinations made Colombia one of the most violent countries in the world. Colombians were fleeing their country in the hundreds of thousands. As former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich noted last year in congressional testimony, "Barely five years ago, the big debate inside the U.S. government centered on how long the government of Colombia could survive."
Uribe's promise of eradicating the violence that plagued Colombia earned him a rare victory as an independent candidate in a country with a strong bipartisan system. He was inaugurated in 2002 under a hail of FARC rockets. He immediately strengthened the army's presence in rural zones and pushed the Marxists out of central Colombia, where they had threatened the largest cities. Uribe also pushed a controversial plan to persuade the paramilitary groups to disarm in exchange for reduced sentences and incentives to reincorporate into the workforce.
The results speak for themselves. Crime has plummeted under Uribe's watch. Since 2002, homicides have declined by 40 percent, kidnappings by 82 percent, and terrorist attacks by 77 percent. Medellin, until a few years ago the deadliest city in the world, now has a lower per capita homicide rate than Baltimore. Thanks to increased security and stability, Colombia today is a vibrant country with a thriving economy that has grown at an average of 5.4 percent in the last five years. Direct foreign investment skyrocketed from $2.1 billion in 2002 to $9 billion in 2007. Poverty has fallen by 11.9 percent.
In recent months there has been mounting speculation that Uribe wants to run for a third term in office. If he does so, there is not doubt he would win handily. But this is where his final legacy should lie: he should step down.
Even though Uribe has remained silent on the issue, his allies in Congress are already pushing for a referendum to change the Constitution for a second time to allow him another term. The issue has been inflamed by the conviction of a congresswoman who was bribed to vote for the earlier constitutional amendment. To put the scandal behind him, Uribe has called for a referendum that will essentially serve as a "re-vote" on his second term. However, whatever opposition there was to Uribe's reelection efforts will now be drowned out by the wave of support generated by the recent hostage rescue.
Changing the rules in the middle of the game isn't good for democracy, regardless of whether it's done by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and his highly questionable tactics, or by Uribe following the letter of Colombian law.
President Uribe is a rarity in Latin American politics: a serious, thoughtful and principled man whose policies have delivered more safety, security, and economic opportunity for his citizens. He should recognize that institutions matter and that democracy must transcend the virtues of any leader, no matter how formidable. By stepping down in 2010, rather than pushing for a constitutional change to run for a third term, Uribe will be delivering the ultimate victory for the future of Colombia.