Álvaro Uribe Vélez was the president of the Republic of Colombia from 2002-2010. Prior to and during his time as president, Colombia was engaged in a civil war between the government and several militant groups, the most notable being the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) (“World Report 2020: Rights Trends In Colombia” 2021). During his time as president, Uribe was constantly faced with the challenge of securing his county from such forces and protecting the citizens of Colombia. President Álvaro Uribe Vélez was considered by many scholars to be part of a neopopulist movement increasing in popularity throughout Latin America, but this could not be further from the truth. Álvaro Uribe Vélez was never a populist and therefore never a neopopulist.
Neopopulism appeared in the 1990s out of a growing trend of globalization, and took root in Latin America (Yoshikazu 2018). It appears as a combination of neoliberalism and populism, and is branded in Latin America as a new wave of populism. While populism itself has no clear and distinct definition, as each case of populism is largely dependent on the nation-state in which it takes place, there are certain characteristics of a chief executive’s policies and actions that define him or her as a populist. For one, populists are anti-establishment see the country’s problems as an “us vs. them” mentality, which the populist leader plans to solve (Müller 2016). Second, a populist leader will feed off of (as well as into), the emotions of those who feel angry or frustrated with the actions of the government. More often than not, this group of people comes from a lower socio-economic status than most others in the country, as is the case with populism in a Latin American context (Dugas 2003). Third, Latin American neopopulism is characterized by a charismatic leader who seeks to unify the people against the elite. While this is not a comprehensive list of populist characteristics, they are three of the most prominently seen characteristics in populist leaders throughout history.
Nothing in the explanation of populism describes Uribe’s political career, including his presidency. In fact, Uribe had an impressive political career prior to his election to the presidency, which one could argue makes him part of the establishment that populists are against (Dugas 2003). Uribe served as a mayor, senator, and governor in Colombia. During his time in Colombia’s Senate, he wrote or sponsored several pieces of legislation that appear more neo-liberal than populist, including one piece of legislation that reformed the social security system, which effectively made it harder or impossible for Colombia’s poorest to gain access to healthcare (Dugas 2003). Supporting this particular piece of legislation would be very anti-populist. During no time in his political career prior to the presidency, especially during his campaign for the presidency, did Uribe strive to promote himself as a charismatic leader who would save the “people” from the elite. In fact, his running mate, Francisco Santos, claimed that he did not have the charisma of other candidates, but that he was attracting support due to his clarity and his proposals (Dugas 2003). During his campaign, Uribe published his Manifesto Democratico – 100 points, in which he outlined his platform and his hopes for Colombia should he be elected president (Uribe 2002). Point 97 states that Uribe “[offered] a serious, efficient, honorable Government, not a miraculous one. I fear both demagogy and populism because the frustration of electoral promises affects democratic credibility.” Uribe disavowed populism before he even became president and instead insinuated that he wanted to maintain democratic credibility.
Why does this matter? Uribe is out of office, and while he served in the Senate post-presidency, he is currently under house arrest, serving a sentence passed down to him in August 2020 (Otis 2020). It is important to rightly classify Uribe as he was, not as the media and academics claim him to be, for the sake of understanding Colombia’s current political climate. Uribe has been out of office for 11 years, but his influence on Colombia still persists today through Uribismo, a political movement organized by Uribe during his presidency (Kajsiu 2019). Through its political party, Centro Democratico, it led the campaign to reject the 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC, which the people of Colombia agreed with in the 2016 referendum. As many academics saw Uribe as a populist, the Uribismo movement is seen as a right-wing neo-populist movement, which is an incorrect judgement of the successful movement. So successful, in fact, that the Centro Democratico elected candidate Iván Duque to the presidency and captured 19 seats and 32 seats in the Senate and House, respectfully. The only party with more legislative success was the Liberal Party, one of the longest-established parties in the country (Congressional Research Service 2018).
This is Uribe’s legacy: Uribismo. This is the Colombia he left when he left office in 2010. Democratic erosion never took place during his presidency because he was not a populist who sought to erode it. He fought to do the exact opposite – protect it from the chaos and instability that had existed in his country for decades.
- Congressional Research Service. 2018. Colombia’s 2018 Elections. United States Congress. https://sgp.fas.org/crs/row/IF10817.pdf.
- Dugas, John C. 2003. “The Emergence Of Neopopulism In Colombia? The Case Of Álvaro Uribe.” Third World Quarterly 24(6): 1117-1136.
- Kajsiu, Blendi. 2019. “The Colombian Right: The Political Ideology And Mobilization Of Uribismo.” Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies / Revue canadienne des études latino-américaines et caraïbes 44(2): 204-224.
- Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism?. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Otis, John. 2020. “Colombia’s Ex-President Uribe Is Put Under House Arrest, Catches Coronavirus.” NPR. https://www.npr.org/2020/08/05/899273712/colombias-ex-president-uribe-is-put-under-house-arrest-catches-coronavirus (November 2021).
- Uribe Vélez, Álvaro. 2002. Manifesto Democratico – 100 Points. Colombian Government.
- “World Report 2020: Rights Trends In Colombia.” 2021. Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/colombia#05e37e (November 2021).
- Yoshikazu, Nakatani. 2018. Global Syndrome Of Neopopulism: A Symptom Of Authoritarian Reaction In The Era Of ‘After Globalization’. http://www.ritsumei.ac.jp/acd/cg/law/lex/rlr36/006nakataniyoshikazu.pdf (November 2021).