Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Colombia’s Former Peace Commissioner: On the Run and Seeking Asylum

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El derecho a la ternura (The Right to Tenderness), a book that argues in favor of treating thy neighbor kindly, was somewhat of a local bestseller in Colombia in the mid-1990s. Its author, Luis Carlos Restrepo, had already been mildly successful with another book, La trampa de la razón (The Trap of Reason), which develops the quite original subject of how excessive reasoning is bad in fields like love, sex and friendship. Restrepo, a psychiatrist, became a somewhat successful public lecturer, and a frequent guest of morning radio and TV shows.

But he is now a prominent fugitive, wanted by the Colombian authorities, after his polemic term as Peace Commissioner during the Uribe administration. Restrepo, however, had fled the country, his whereabouts being completely unknown, and according to a statement released yesterday, is now seeking asylum.

The current situation dates back to 2002 when Álvaro Uribe announced he would appoint Luis Carlos Restrepo to lead his peace initiatives. It was a generally well-received choice: Restrepo’s experience as a psychiatrist and an author, dealing with issues such as friendship, tenderness and reconciliation seemed fit for the job.

Very soon, Restrepo would find his name surrounded by bitter debates, most of them related to the peace negotiations with the Colombian paramilitary groups responsible for horrific crimes across the country. The Uribe administration presented demobilization of 30,000 members of these groups as a major success. But critics noted that a number of drug lords had managed to sneak into the process, bringing their personal armies with them under the disguise of politically-motivated paramilitary groups.

Curiously enough, it was not this polemic process that got Restrepo into serious legal trouble. It was the demobilization of an alleged FARC structure named Cacica La Gaitana, after a legendary Indigenous leader: 62 members of the group, along with their two chiefs, surrendered their arms, and even a small airplane. Initially announced as a significant victory for the administration’s security policy, soon doubts began to emerge as to the authenticity of the group.

These doubts became grounds for legal action, as indications grew that this FARC structure was fake, and that it was only made up to grab the monetary and legal benefits of demobilization. Serious indications even suggest that a drug baron bought his ticket into the group. Even the detail of the small airplane turned out to be a scam.

Hence, the office of Colombia’s General Prosecutor decided to start an investigation. Luis Carlos Restrepo became the main suspect. It was plausible that he could have possessed knowledge of the false nature of the group but decided to go on with the demobilization to highlight it as a success of his policies. After failing to attend three hearings, the General Prosecutor requested an arrest warrant, which was conferred by a judge.

The issue escalated to the highest political levels. Former President Uribe, who’s very active on Twitter, denounced the arrest warrant as political persecution against his administration and his followers. The masterminds of such persecution, in Uribe’s view, are in the judicial branch. In fact, during most of his administration, Uribe had a very difficult relation with the Supreme Court. Followers of Uribe, and the former president himself, also believe that this occurs in the context of a certain betrayal: they accuse President Santos of having presented himself as the heir of Uribe, only to betray his legacy by following different policies and appointing enemies of Uribe to high positions.

In the midst of this tense context, the nation heard of Restrepo, by that time a fugitive. On February 14, a website devoted to the ideas of Uribe’s most radical followers published a sort of manifesto, allegedly written somewhere by Restrepo. The manifesto calls on followers of Uribe to stop Santos from being reelected in 2014; it also implores them to put together a list of candidates for Congress, and to start preparing a Constitutional Assembly.

How can this extravagant manifesto be interpreted? First, its fiercely political tone could be targeted at portraying Restrepo as a political refugee, persecuted by the authorities, and thus making the case for political asylum. Uribe himself admits to having advised some of his former officials, who are in deep legal trouble, to seek political asylum abroad. No wonder, the website that published the manifesto calls Restrepo a “political rebel.”

A second interpretation—not incompatible with the first—is that the manifesto actually seeks to unite followers of Uribe against Santos, and to start a new political force to stop Santos policies (which they deem wrong), and perhaps even to amend the Constitution so that Uribe can be back in office. 

The latter would be a hugely risky bet. Prominent members of the Partido de la U (founded to promote Uribe’s policies, and under which banner Santos got elected) have reacted strongly against Restrepo’s manifesto. Roy Barreras, a senator who’s seen as close to Uribe, called Restrepo’s manifesto “delirious”. Oscar Iván Zuluaga, a former minister in Uribe’s administration, and seen by many as a future presidential candidate, strongly rejected Restrepo’s words. Even Juan Carlos Vélez, perhaps Uribe’s most loyal friend in the Senate, refused to endorse the idea of waging political war on Santos.

On the other hand, at least at this point, popular support for Uribe is not likely to turn into massive rejection of Santos, let alone support for a highly polemic third term for Uribe. This will remain true for a while, even security and guerrilla action, a critical concern for Colombians, will continue to deteriorate in the coming months.

* Andrés Mejía Vergnaud is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is a political consultant based in Bogotá and is the author of El destino trágico de Venezuela.


Andrés Mejía Vergnaud is the academic director of the Instituto Libertad y Progreso in Bogotá, Colombia. He is the author of El destino trágico de Venezuela (2009).

Tags: Alvaro Uribe, Colombia, Luis Carlos Restrepo
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