SEMANA, November 7, 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The referendum that the former President proposes has no chance whatever of succeeding, But it does fix the election route for “Uribism” to try to stay in power in 2022. It doesn’t appear that it will be easy.

Now free after house arrest, Álvaro Uribe has two jobs in front of him: his legal defense and a presidential campaign for 2022, to which he dedicates his greatest efforts every day. “Uribism” is passing through a crisis of popularity, because of the collapse of the former President’s image, and the unpopularity of the government.

But the leader of the Democratic Center Party has decided to lay out his cards for the next election. He released the 13 points of a referendum that he just proposed, but that will go nowhere for many reasons, because of the quantity of votes required for an initiative like that to be successful. Besides, nobody in Colombia today is thinking about a referendum, but rather in how to go forward in the midst of the social and economic catastrophe caused by the coronavirus.

Starting now, Uribe is trying to impose his agenda for a campaign in 2022 with a referendum on which he is hanging a lot of things: from eliminating the JEP, unifying the high courts, an obsession of “Uribism”, up to protecting Amazonia and then reducing the size of the Congress. The 13 points summarize the program that “Uribism” will offer the voters in 2022.

In the 2018 campaign when Iván Duque won, the Democratic Center Party insisted on the problematic argument that the JEP ought to be done away with, although it’s the cornerstone of the Peace Agreement with the FARC. Because of that proposal, the government suffered monumental losses in Congress. Duque squandered valuable time trying to push other projects and in the end he was beaten. A second attempt also curdled and now, by means of a referendum, “Uribism” wants to pick up the baggage again.

Abolishing the JEP is the most controversial point and it’s coming just when the transitional justice entity is starting to show results, and when this country is starting to view its existence to be fundamental to clarifying the horrors of the war and learning the truth. If not for this tribunal, it would have been difficult for the country to find out that the FARC assassinated Álvaro Gómez Hurtado, a theory that the ordinary justice system had never considered in 25 years.

Up to now, the JEP is advancing in seven very large cases. More than 308,000 victims have been accredited, and 12,617 have submitted to the Court’s jurisdiction, including former guerrillas of the FARC, soldiers, and civilian third parties. The battle to bury the JEP only unites the radical “Uribists” and it won’t succeed in gaining support from other sectors.

“The JEP might require some reforms, changes, or improvements, but always in line with strengthening and legitimating it, not to attack it or close it down. If the JEP did not exist, we would have had to invent it, if we really believe that the heart of the peace is the rights of nine million victims,” Colombia’s Inspector General Fernando Carrillo has said.

Duque knows that if he moves to touch that Tribunal, his coalition in Congress might falter and doesn’t have months to waste, since the third year of his term will arrive in the blink of an eye.

In spite of that, everything indicates that Uribe will arrive at the 2022 election with the same agenda of 2018, that is, churning up the polarization surrounding the Peace Agreement with the FARC, and trying to close the doors to the political participation of the former guerrilla chieftains that have seats in Congress.

One of the points in the referendum contemplates excluding those responsible for crimes against humanity from legislative office and from any elective office. When the previous administration signed the Peace Agreement, the idea was to replace weapons with politics, and that those responsible for crimes would pay for that within the JEP’s regulations. Changing that endangers the demobilization of the former guerrilla chieftains who have kept their word, in contrast to those that went back to the jungle.

Another controversial point in Uribe’s referendum is reducing the size of the Congress by 30% and lowering the salaries of the Senators and Representatives. The idea is popular and the majority of the citizens would applaud it because it’s an institution historically steeped in disrepute and with little intention of reforming itself. That was made clear recently when the political reform bill was defeated.

But more than trimming the Congress, it’s necessary that the parties clean up their lists in the next campaign, and that Colombians vote wisely and that the Members of Congress break away from scandalous and unethical actions such as charging travel expenses when the sessions are virtual.

Besides the legal and political assaults, Uribe inserts two good intentions into the referendum. On the one hand, he proposes that the government furnish a subsidy in the image and likeness of a program like Solidarity Income created by President Duque in the pandemic. In another, he suggests providing a pension bonus for newborns in vulnerable households.

All of that sounds good on paper, but the fiscal viability is very uncertain and does not consider that the government is already thinking of a tax reform that would assume the costs of the pandemic.

Uribe’s referendum also offers free education in public, private, or mixed institutions, “without monopoly or indoctrination”. That point sounds more like a criticism of the teachers union than a substantive solution to improve educational quality in this country.

And not to overlook an environmental proposal, he asks that citizens who care for ecosystems such as Amazonia, Orinoquia, and Pacífico, among others, be paid a salary.

Just like the subsidies, those ideas sound good, but they don’t have a clear fiscal foundation.

“Look out for 2022,” Uribe has repeated, trying to revive the ghost of “castrochavismo”. His referendum will be the backbone of the Democratic Center Party’s campaign, and he will try to use it as a counterweight to the proposal by Roy Barreras to recall Duque from office. But any referendum, regardless of who proposes it, is doomed to failure because of the rules that apply. Not even the anti-corruption consult was able to cross the threshold.

Uribe knows those stories from memory and he is well aware that his proposal is not really a referendum, but rather a platform for the government to use in competing with others at the polls. If those 13 points finally arrive unchanged to the 2022 campaign, the scenario would be one of profound radicalization.

The center and the left are going to coincide in attacking any attempt to do away with the JEP and with the advances of the Peace Agreement. But the Democratic Center is a disciplined party and its most solid leaders in the next contest, like the Defense Minister, Carlos Holmes Trujillo García, will defend these claims and try to bring the right and the conservatives together. The question is whether in 2022 the country needs to re-edit the agenda of the 2018 election or continue in the polarization between those that are in favor and those that are opposed to the Peace Agreement, like in the plebiscite of 2016.

For now, the wounds left by the pandemic predict other subjects. Unemployment, the massive closing of businesses, health, and the fight against corruption will be among the priorities. With his referendum, the former President makes it clear that he will play rough in the presidential election, and that he will push, with some exceptions, the same issues that radicalize Colombians. Uribe, once again, to the fray.

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