In Latin America, the Long Shadow of Colombia’s Far-Right Is Receding
Led by former president Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s far-right bloc has exported its politics across Latin America. Fortunately, thanks to inspiring street protests and an electoral challenge from the left, Colombia may not be a regional bastion of reaction for much longer.
In May 2021, Colombia once again made international headlines, witnessing one of the largest mass mobilizations in decades. Millions of Colombians took to the streets to protest against the conservative government of President Iván Duque, neoliberal policies, environmental destruction, police brutality, and rampant corruption. The government’s repression left 44 people dead and over 3,000 wounded. Close to 1,500 protesters were arbitrarily detained.
Six months later, President Duque is still holding on to power. The systematic killings of leftists, student activists, and community leaders, all of whom played a pivotal role in the popular uprising, continues unabated. However, Colombia is also currently bracing itself for a hotly anticipated presidential election in May and June of next year, where Gustavo Petro, a social democratic populist and former guerrilla fighter, is leading in the polls. Colombia has reached a crossroads.
Making matters more interesting, Colombia’s far-right bloc spearheaded by Álvaro Uribe, president of Colombia from 2002 to 2010, is in the midst of a profound crisis. With close ties to drug trafficking, paramilitary death squads, and the military, the Uribe camp has been the driving force of Colombian politics over the past two decades. The protests and Petro’s popularity, however, are clear signs that Uribe’s hegemonic leadership and political clout are slipping.
Evidence of uribismo’s ongoing crisis begins with Uribe himself, who remains under indictment for fraud and bribery after those charges were upheld by the Constitutional Court of Colombia this past November. Further evidence of the far right’s waning influence can be found in the historically high disapproval rating for the country’s Uribe-backed right-wing president, Iván Duque (69.8 percent, according to the most recent poll), as well as in the disarray and infighting within Uribe’s own party, the Centro Democrático (Democratic Center). Such infighting is itself partly the result of the party’s current predicament of being frozen out of the political alliance formed by Colombia’s other conservative parties in next year’s elections.
Even Uribe’s foreign support is fading: a recent ruling by the US federal district court in Miami against a former paramilitary leader, citing “symbiotic relations” between paramilitary groups and the Colombian state, signals that the world is increasingly associating uribismo with political toxicity.
Finally, the fizzling of the Lima Group — an association of twelve Latin American states and Canada designed to isolate Venezuela — may signal a general decline in the right-wing, neoliberal regional bloc of which uribismo has been a driving force over the last two decades.
The decline of uribismo is a significant development for Colombian and broader Latin American politics. As a staunch ally of the United States, Colombia’s far right has helped weaken leftist governments by supporting regime-change attempts, and it has strengthened the Latin American right by providing support at every turn for the most reactionary governments, including those of Jeanine Áñez in Bolivia and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
It may be too soon to write an epitaph for Uribe himself, but it is a good moment as any to recall all the damage Uribe and uribismo have done in Colombia and the region at large.
Uribe’s ascent in the late 1990s accompanied a profound transformation of Colombia’s political system, putting an end to more than 150 years of bipartisan power sharing. It also coincided with the neoliberal restructuring of the country’s economy. As governor of the historically ultraconservative province of Antioquia, Uribe began to articulate the interests of a new right-wing class alliance. The coalition was formed during the peace negotiations with the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) during the administration of Uribe’s presidential predecessor, Andrés Pastrana (1998–2002). Uribe’s coalition included large landowners, cattle ranchers, agribusiness, drug traffickers, paramilitaries, sectors of the Liberal Party, the police and the military, and multinational corporations.
Following his 2002 presidential election, Uribe pushed for an all-out military offensive against the FARC and Colombia’s other substantial leftist guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army. In that effort, Uribe’s far-right government was funded and backed by the largest US military aid package in Latin America’s history. Plan Colombia strengthened the counterinsurgency capacities of Colombia’s armed forces and expedited the territorial recovery of resource-rich regions that were of high strategic importance to the United States.
State violence was, however, not only directed against the armed insurgencies. Under Uribe’s presidency, the forced displacement of millions of peasants, the usurpation of their lands, massacres by paramilitary groups, and the systematic persecution of dissident political sectors reached an all-time high. Thousands of civilians were killed by the Colombian military — some of them, in a practice later known by the antiseptic euphemism “false positives,” in order to obtain cash bonuses doled out for the killing of guerrilla combatants. Simultaneously, paramilitaries, large landowners, and politicians with close ties to drug trafficking became part of the political and institutional establishment.
On the economic front, the Uribe government accelerated the liberalization of trade and finance and pushed for the privatization of the public sector and the deregulation of the labor market. It deepened the extractivist orientation of Colombia’s accumulation model by encouraging foreign investment in the mining and energy sectors and by subsidizing cash-crop monocultures. US multinational corporations and investment banks were among the main beneficiaries.
In 2008, on one of his last days in office, President George W. Bush awarded Uribe the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his role in the “war on terror” and in Colombia’s armed conflict. Thirteen years later, Uribe is on trial for alleged crimes of bribery and witness tampering, vote buying, his relationship with paramilitarism, and crimes against humanity for his alleged involvement in the systematic murder of peasants.
Under his successor, President Juan Manuel Santos (2010–18), Uribe strongly opposed the peace process with the FARC guerrillas in the interests of large landowners, cattle ranchers, agribusiness, and military officers. He denounced the planned restitution of expropriated land and defended those who had profited from the mass displacements of peasants. His conflict with the Santos government and his rejection of the peace agreement, signed in 2016, played a decisive role in the 2018 presidential elections. The victory of Uribe’s handpicked candidate, Iván Duque, signaled the return of Colombia’s extreme right to the center of political power.
Over the past two decades, Colombia’s far right has also played an important role in the defense of US interests in Latin America.
Contrary to the regional trend of progressive and leftist governments coming to power, Uribe promoted neoliberal restructuring and deepened Colombia’s long-standing military cooperation with the United States. In 2009, the two countries signed a bilateral agreement that further expanded Colombia’s military capabilities. This deal with the United States helped Colombia become a leading exporter and provider of military and police training in the region, assisting right-wing governments in their counterinsurgency efforts. Colombia is today the third largest recipient of US military aid in the entire world — surpassed only by Israel and Egypt — and, since 2019, a global NATO partner.
The 2009 agreement also increased the presence of US troops on Colombian soil. This occurred in conjunction with the reactivation of the US Navy Fourth Fleet the year before, which operates in the Caribbean Sea and around Central and South America. US military personnel, government officials, and private contractors were granted access to seven military bases in Colombia. The objective was to enhance the aerial control of the entire region by the US Southern Command. Moreover, the agreement opened the possibility of joint military operations to confront “common regional threats.”
This refers first and foremost to neighboring Venezuela. In the recent past, the country was not only a major driving force behind Latin America’s shift to the left; the governments of Hugo Chávez (1998–2013) and Nicolás Maduro (2013–present) were also at the forefront of challenging the dominant role of the United States in the region.
Sharing a 2,200-kilometer-long border with Venezuela, Colombia has played a central role in the conflict between the US and Chavista governments. Following the failed coup attempt against President Chávez in 2002, Colombia’s conservative president, Andrés Pastrana, was the first head of state in the region to immediately recognize the coup’s would-be president, Pedro Carmona. The coup was staged by a dissident sector of the Venezuelan Armed Forces and was supported by the US government. Colombian paramilitaries were also involved, firing on protesters in the streets. After Chávez’s return to government, Carmona was immediately granted political asylum in Colombia. He currently works as a professor at a private university in Bogotá.
Under President Uribe, Colombia launched a multidimensional destabilization campaign to oust President Chávez. It actively supported Colombian paramilitary incursions into Venezuela, which were financed by Venezuelan businessmen, sectors of the military, and right-wing politicians. The objective was to weaken the country’s productive capacities, to assassinate President Chávez and other government officials, and to strengthen the US-backed opposition along the border and in the capital of Caracas. Colombia’s Administrative Department of Security (DAS) had prior knowledge of the paramilitary activities in Venezuela. Years later, DAS officials acknowledged the existence of a destabilization plan during the Uribe presidency.
After Chávez’s death in 2013, the Uribe camp intensified its campaign. That same year, a document titled “Plan Estratégico Venezolano” (Venezuelan Strategic Plan) was leaked to the press. Put together by two think tanks founded and headed by Uribe along with the US company FTI Consulting, it outlined four major strategies: first, to increase sabotage activities against Venezuela’s public infrastructure; second, to exacerbate the existing shortage of basic products and food; third, to create crisis situations in the streets that would justify a military intervention by US and NATO forces; and forth, to promote a military insurrection against the Bolivarian government. Over the following years, Colombian paramilitaries and drug traffickers helped organize the protests and violent actions (guarimbas) promoted by the opposition against the Maduro government.
With President Duque in power, Colombia’s far right began to double down on its efforts to put an end to the Bolivarian project. In light of the growing humanitarian and migratory crisis in Venezuela, the Duque government played a leading role in the Lima Group, a regional intergovernmental organization founded by right-wing governments in 2017, with the purpose of increasing the diplomatic and political pressure on President Maduro. A similar scenario unfolded in the Organization of American States (OAS), a multilateral forum historically dominated by the United States. The Duque government appointed Alejandro Ordóñez as Colombia’s ambassador to the OAS, a person known for his radical homophobic, anti-communist, and ultraconservative religious views. Ordóñez would later spearhead the OAS campaign against Venezuela. Finally, in 2019, the Duque government actively supported the self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaidó in his multifaceted attempt to topple President Maduro.
If meddling in Venezuela is the most prominent example of the regional influence of Colombia’s extreme right, it is by no means the only one. Uribe and his political allies have supported right-wing forces in a variety of Latin American countries, such as Chile, Mexico, Panama, Honduras, Brazil, and Argentina. In most cases, their work has consisted in advising state and federal governments on “security” matters (i.e., counterinsurgency). The objective has always been the same: to change the existing balance of power in favor of right-wing parties and thus weaken progressive governments and leftist forces.
Despite its decline, the influence of Colombia’s extreme right in the media, military, police, intelligence services, and the judiciary is still significant — and is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future.
A victory for Gustavo Petro in the upcoming presidential elections would most likely not put into question the long-standing military alliance with the United States. However, it would likely unleash a reactionary response from Uribe’s bloc and its fellow travelers. A steady drumbeat of apocalyptic sentiment is already coming from the right-wing and mainstream press, warning that a Petro victory would see the country become “another Venezuela.”
Whether reactionary violence would reinvigorate the far fight or accelerate the decline of its legitimacy is difficult to say. Given that Uribe and his handpicked candidates have won four out of the last five presidential elections, it would also be folly to count out his choice for next year’s poll, the former finance minister and staunch opponent of the FARC peace agreement Óscar Iván Zuluaga.
In short, the next year promises to be a fateful one in settling the question of whether the Colombian far right’s domestic and regional grip is indeed slipping or whether, following a brief lull, it will only tighten further.