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05BOGOTA5497 2005-06-08 20:46:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Bogota
Cable title:  

PRESIDENT URIBE AND COLOMBIA FACE UNCHARTERED

Tags:   PGOV PREL CO 
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This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
					  C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 06 BOGOTA 005497 

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/29/2015
TAGS: PGOV PREL CO
SUBJECT: PRESIDENT URIBE AND COLOMBIA FACE UNCHARTERED
WATERS -- AND IT HAS BEEN SHOWING

Classified By: Charge Milton K. Drucker for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)

-----------
INTRODUCTION
------------



1. (C) For the first time in Colombian history, the sitting
President is a potential candidate for re-election. The
political landscape is new for the President, the Congress
and the public. The script is being written as they go and
the disquiet has been evident everywhere. Over the last few
weeks, the government appeared to lose its surefootedness on
several key issues, the President's poll numbers dropped, and
executive-congressional relations grew more tense. With
Congressional elections in March 2006 and Presidential
elections two months later, the campaign season has already
begun. But the sequencing leading up to elections has become
inverted. The Constitutional Court will most likely render
its verdict on whether President Uribe can stand for
reelection in late September, while the principal political
parties will select presidential candidates at party
conventions during the summer -- before knowing if Uribe can
run. The unfamiliar terrain has been contributing to power
struggles in some of the main political parties and blocks
over ideology, party leadership, and presidential and
congressional candidates. While seemingly a bleak picture,
senior officials in the Administration are beginning to come
to grips with the unprecedented political dynamic,
acknowledge their unpreparedness for it, recognize their
fatigue, and are taking steps to bring themselves out of
disarray.



--------------------------


HAS URIBE BEEN STUMBLING?


--------------------------





2. (C) The political situation has put Uribe Administration
off its game in recent weeks. Senior officials have not been
speaking with one voice. Their poor handling of the
demobilization law, failure to respond to AUC cease-fire
violations, lack of progress in the peace process with
guerrilla groups, weak response to Congressional criticism
over immunities for U.S. military personnel, and inability to
manage competing domestic constituencies for FTA
negotiations, all pointed to a rudderlessness unusual for the
disciplined and workaholic Uribe Administration.



3. (C) A five-city poll conducted by Gallup Colombia in May
suggests that the public has been reacting as well. While
Uribe's overall approval rating remains at a strong 69
percent, it has dropped five points in the first four months
of the year. More importantly, on key issues like his
handling of corruption, the guerrillas, and the paramilitary
peace process, declines have been sharper since December


2004. On dealing with corruption, he has dropped 10 points
to 61 percent, on the guerrillas, 11 points to 59 percent,
and on the paramilitaries, 19 points to 54 percent. For the
first time since September 2004, more Colombians believe the
situation is worsening (40 percent) than improving (36
percent). According to an adviser to former presidential
candidate and close Uribe confidant Noemi Sanin, the
President was stunned by the polls. He told Sanin in a May
23 telephone call that he was not getting his message out and
his Ministers were performing poorly.



--------------------------


LAW FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE


--------------------------





4. (C) The GOC has made itself an easy target for criticism
on the demobilization law currently before the Congress.
Recent changes softening the draft strengthened arguments
from political opponents, some G-24 nations and NGOs that the
GOC is playing into the AUC's hands, and that the law will
not dismantle their narco/criminal networks. Contradictory
comments from Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo,
Minister of Interior and Justice Sabas Pretelt, and Vice
President Francisco Santos have further weakened the GOC
position. The GOC was reluctant to defend or even publicize
its version of the law until well after Senator Rafael Pardo
had sold his rival draft to human rights groups and other
international organizations. Surprisingly still, unlike with
other issues, the GOC did not respond with an aggressive
public campaign to defend its draft overseas, including in
the United States, leaving a vacuum that Pardo, Human Rights
Watch and other NGOS gladly filled.



5. (C) At the same time, the AUC continued to violate the
cease-fire, including recruiting efforts in southern Bogota
and perpetrating spikes in violence in Buenaventura.
Although the military has increased pressure on the
paramilitaries and full compliance with the case-fire is
difficult given the on-going conflict and concentration of
AUC commanders in Ralito, the violations nonetheless
reinforced the view that the GOC is soft on the
paramilitaries.



6. (C) On May 25, Uribe ordered the arrest of AUC senior
commander "Don Berna" for murdering a local government
official. The President's order landed in the press before
it was executed, and it became clear that an alerted Don
Berna was unlikely to be caught, at least right away.
Between that and concern at the prospect of a breakdown of
the peace process and a return to high levels of para
violence, Uribe negotiated Don Berna's surrender. On May 27,
Don Berna turned himself in, in exchange in a ranch house for
demobilizing his troops (roughly 4,000) and being held in
government custody outside of the concentration zone. While
we believe he will be tried for the murder, the GOC has not
guaranteed that it will prosecute Berna for his other
numerous crimes or approve his extradition to the U.S. on
drug trafficking charges. International organizations and
many Colombians will accuse the GOC of being soft on Don
Berna if he is given a light sentence. Many Colombians will
recall charges that Uribe is sympathetic to the
paramilitaries. Human Rights Watch already issued a warning
that GOC treatment of Don Berna would be a clear indication
of its committment to holding major criminals accountable.



7. (C) Cordoba Governor Libardo Lopez and leading Senator
Juan Manuel Lopez, both Officialist Liberals, complained to
poloff on May 20 about the rarified political atmosphere and
the AUC peace process. They agreed with Democratic Pole
(PDI) representative Gustavo Petro's May 14 accusations on
the House floor that the Uribe administration had links to
the paramilitaries, that neighboring Sucre department was
infested with paras at all levels, and that Sucre politicians
had participated in the creation of paramilitary
organizations. Surprisingly, there was a deafening silence
from the President for days. Casa de Narino Communications
Director Jaime Bermudez admitted to polcouns on May 26 that
Uribe waited too long to respond to Petro's accusations.
Presidential advisor and reelection coordinator Juan Manuel
Santos told polcouns the same on May 14: the stigma of the
paras along with the perception of a weak peace and justice
law continues to cost the President and tarnish his
Administration. And, he said, we have not been fighting back
as we should.



--------------------------



--------------------------


PEACE PROCESS WITH THE GUERRILLAS AT A STANDSTILL


--------------------------



--------------------------





8. (C) The peace processes with the ELN and FARC have
stalled, leaving the impression that the GOC has run out of
ideas. The process with the ELN fell apart on April 17 when
the ELN rejected Mexican facilitation, reportedly because of
Mexico's vote against Cuba at the UN Commission on Human
Rights. In fact, the process had already frozen over the
ELN's refusal to cease kidnapping. In a May 10 conversation,
Peace Commissioner Restrepo continued to be pessimistic about
re-starting a process with the ELN.



9. (C) The up-tick in FARC attacks, military action and
diplomacy abroad has persuaded many that the group is still a
strong political presence in the country. While recent FARC
efforts have not been militarily significant, they have cast
doubt on the success of President Uribe's democratic security
policy. Progress in the area of operations of Plan
Patriota's Phase 2B (PP2B) has been slow in early 2005, in
part because the FARC have adapted to COLMIL's strategy. The
FARC are also increasing their use of booby traps and
subterfuge to counter COLMIL efforts. COLMIL military
commanders reallocated PP2B troops because the old zoning
used last year did not allow for communications between local
commanders. Even with the reorganization, military troops
have had trouble engaging the FARC in combat zones. The GOC
has been unable to locate and kill or capture any high value
targets (HVTs) despite extensive USG tactical support.



--------------------------


WOBBLY ON IMMUNITIES FOR U.S. MILITARY


--------------------------





10. (C) On May 3, two U.S. soldiers were detained by
Colombian National Police in Melgar, Tolima Department for
their alleged involvement in an ammunition sale, possibly to
illegal armed groups. The soldiers are members of the U.S.
Army's 7th Special Forces Group and were serving as staff
members of a Special Forces company conducting training at
the Colombian Army's National Training Center in Tolemaida, a
few kilometers away. They were released into U.S. custody on
May 5 and departed Bogota on May 6. A month earlier, on
March 30, 35 pounds of cocaine were found on a U.S. military
plane that left Colombia for Fort Bliss. Three U.S. military
personnel temporarily stationed in Colombia, who had
immunity, and two in the U.S. were arrested by U.S.
authorities for transporting drugs to the U.S. on military
aircraft. One has been released, while the investigation
continues on the others.



11. (C) Although GOC officials agree that the soldiers are
entitled to immunity from Colombian criminal jurisdiction
under existing bilateral agreements and the Vienna
Convention, they have been less sure-footed in public.
President Uribe has said he trusts the U.S. to fully
prosecute those found guilty, but admitted privately to
SOUTHCOM Commander General Craddock that he was unsure how to
defend the immunity agreement to the public. Meanwhile, some
Congressmen and other influential politicians continue to
question publicly immunity for U.S. military personnel in
Colombia. Colombian Inspector General Edgardo Maya has
called upon President Uribe to seek congressional approval of
the current immunity agreements between Colombia and the
United States. He argues that the agreement currently in
force, which was signed back in 1974, did not fulfill
procedural requirements at the time and is therefore
unconstitutional and inapplicable now. Uribe has not
responded.



--------------------------


FREE TRADE AGREEMENT (FTA)


--------------------------





12. (C) The GOC is facing increasing opposition from the
agricultural sector for the FTA as it becomes clearer that
the agreement will negatively affect the interests of some
groups. While these groups' interests are being challenged,
potential winners are reluctant to make their case. Publicly
the "antis" own the headlines and the air waves. This
combined with the political season in full swing, makes the
GOC loathe to risk losing political support from any group,
especially one as well represented in Congress as the
agricultural sector. Seeing an opening, other groups, such
as the local pharmaceutical and auto parts industries, are
also starting to question the GOC's intent on the FTA. Those
groups that will win with an FTA have yet to mount an
effective campaign for the agreement, making the GOC's job
much more difficult. While the GOC remains committed to an
FTA, those opposed to the agreement for either economic or
ideological reasons are pulling out the stops to try to carve
out protection for themselves, or failing that, scuttling the
agreement altogether.



--------------------------


URIBISTA POLITICAL PARTY DEAD ON ARRIVAL


--------------------------





13. (C) Uribe's recent political initiatives have also fallen
flat, been badly-managed or ill-timed. Efforts to create a
single "Uribista" party, launched May 8 to give the President
a political base in one party, failed within days.
Presidential adviser and former finance minister Juan Manuel
Santos, attempting to put the best face possible on a
political fiasco, told PolCouns on May 17 that the effort was
not to create a single party, which everyone recognized was
not possible, but to cluster smaller parties into three or
four clearly defined groups. He conceded, however, that even
this was going slowly due to "nitty-gritty" political issues.
The small regional parties were competing. For merging
parties, state financial support would diminish or end
altogether. And party leaders would lose the opportunity to
elaborate a list of candidates for the March elections.
Uribe supporter and Cambio Radical Party head German Vargas
Lleras also resisted, believing he could do better on his own
(he could) and others followed his lead. Vargas Lleras,
along with other key Senators such as Luis Guillermo Velez
and Luis Alfredo Ramos, also had no intention of taking
orders from Santos, "who has never won a vote in an electoral
contest in his entire life," as Velez complained to poloff.
For his part, Santos responded privately that Vargas Lleras,
and others like him pursuing their own agendas instead of the
President's, preferred to be "the head of a rat instead of
the tail of a lion."



--------------------------


CONGRESSIONAL RELATIONS


--------------------------





14. (C) Executive-Congressional relations have suffered in
other ways as well. Some members of Congress say the Uribe
Administration has been treating them with disdain of late.
The censure motion against the MOD (albeit stalled and likely
going nowhere) for failing to appear to testify when
required, is viewed by many as Congressional retaliation for
recent GOC mistreatment. Opposition leaders complain that
the President rarely meets with them, and even strong
supporters of the President have been coming out of meetings
angry, venting to the media. The President's key advisers on
legislative issues -- Interior and Justice Minister Sabas
Pretelt and Casa de Narino's Bernardo Moreno -- have not
inspired confidence among senior members of Congress,
including from Uribistas. Leaders of the Offialist Liberal
and the Democratic Pole (PDI) parties, including respective
party heads Juan Fernando Cristo and Samuel Moreno, say
genuine dialogue with the President has grown difficult. If
anyone criticizes the GOC, they charge, the President has
been taking it personally and accusing interlocutors of being
FARC sympathizers.



--------------------------


ALSO PROBLEMS WITH REELECTION LEGISLATION


--------------------------





15. (C) The state of play of reelection implementing
legislation in the Congress and the impasse over associated
draft rules (known locally as "garantias") for creating a
level playing field for candidates also remains troubled.
While the GOC appeared to reach an agreement on some
guarantees with several members of the PDI, a separate group,
including the PDI head, rejected the agreement. On May 23,
the Officialist Liberals decided to formally boycott the
guarantees debate. The Liberals are largely posturing, as
differences in the Liberal- and GOC-backed draft legislation
are not that significant in real terms. Nevertheless, there
is a strong feeling among the left and center left that,
despite his 69 percent approval rating, Uribe is not ready to
give up his incumbent advantages. Multi-hour television
coverage of the President's weekly community council meetings
only serves to fuel opposition claims that the GOC has an
unfair advantage going in to 2006 elections. As Liberal
leader Horacio Serpa told poloff in early May, Uribe has
appeared on the cover of the weekly newsmagazine Semana some
20 times in the last four years. The next closest
competitor, Bogota Mayor Lucho Garzon, has appeared twice.



16. (C) And finally, in the middle of all this, the GOC
launched a drive to reform the Constitution to eliminate the
concept of political crimes. While the move was justified on
democratic grounds, it reinforced growing suspicions that the
GOC was losing focus and taking on more than it could handle,
including a constitutional reform that requires eight rounds
of debate/passage in two consecutive sessions -- with
Congressional elections ten months away.



--------------------------


PRESIDENTIAL ADVISERS CONCEDE THE ROUGH PATCH


--------------------------





17. (C) Presidential Chief of Staff Juan Lozano admitted to
polcouns on May 24 that the past few weeks had not been the
Administration's best. The demobilization law and
implementing legislation for presidential reelection were
moving slowly. The Administration had not handled them well.
The fact that the sitting President was a potential
candidate for the first time was exacerbating relations with
the Congress and affecting the legislative agenda. It has
taken the President off his pedestal and made him human --
and he is now everyone's target. According to Lozano, the
issue has not only bothered the President's predecessors but
upset potential successors whose political futures were being
affected. More unexpected and surprising has been the
personal rancor. Senator Pardo and former Bogota mayor
Enrique Penalosa had been strong political and personal
friends of Uribe's, and are now bitter political opponents.




18. (C) Lozano said the President and his inner-circle had
been caught off guard by the new political environment and
were unprepared. The President's initial response was to
lash out. While trying to focus on his presidential duties,
Uribe has been unable to resist responding to the attacks of
new and old political opponents in the media. The government
was under the microscope every second. No one had
anticipated this kind of scrutiny moving into the fourth year
of the Administration, he said. We are exhausted and have to
manage as if it were the first day of the first year.



19. (C) Communications Director Jaime Bermudez told polcouns
on May 26 that the national media was being equally tough on
the President, and Uribe continued to lose his temper in
interviews, overshadowing content. As we move into the
campaign season, we have to do a better job deciding what
fights needed to be fought, he said.



--------------------------


COMMENT


--------------------------





20. (C) Lozano and Bermudez disagree on the extent of the
recent disarray but both acknowledge they have spent
considerable time analyzing what has gone awry and how to get
things back on track. We are beginning to see signs that the
President and his team are coming out of their funk and
adjusting to the new political reality. Uribe made a tough
call to pursue AUC narco-trafficker Don Berna and then again
to negotiate his surrender. While the final denouement
remains to be seen, he has jump-started additional
demobilizations and may have saved the peace process. After
months of GOC silence on the demobilization law, Foreign
Minister Barco publicly responded for the first time to
critics in the May 31 International Herald Tribune, and there
are plans to send Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo to
Canada, Europe, and the U.S. to explain the law after
Congress passes it.



21. (C) Bermudez now reports that the President is sticking
to his decision to make no comments on re-election until the
Constitutional Court rules in September. Bermudez also said
the GOC has launched a regional and local media campaign to
counter-act Bogota outlets -- and politics. The new polls,
taken in 20 cities around the country, show the President's
support is holding firm above 70 percent. They also show
higher numbers for the President's handling of the drug
issue, the economy and corruption than those of the past four
administrations after three years in office, even with the
re-election dynamic looming. The challenge, said Bermudez,
is to keep the President off the campaign stump until after
the Constitutional Court ruling, and to act like he has the
numbers most politicians would kill for.
DRUCKER