During his eight years of government, former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe took micro-management to levels never seen before. “I’ve always believed in combining a macro vision with involvement in the small details of execution,” writes Uribe in his presidential memoir, No Lost Causes, written with the help of Brian Winter. “In retrospect, when I look at our government, I would say that whenever anything went wrong, it was because we weren’t looking after the details.”
The truth of this self-description is demonstrated graphically in the former president’s book, which places him at the center of the action—often in macho, solipsistic overtones—as he seeks to reverse Colombia’s downward spiral of violence and does battle with the country’s inept and weak state. The book manages to answer many of the questions that have swirled around the controversial and often autocratic former president. But in remaining so faithful to Uribe’s personal vision and voice, it does a disservice not only to the genuine successes of his administration, but also to the country’s complex and vibrant institutional democracy.
Uribe would call middle and lower level public officials to ask them about public works, the status of a decision, or even the weather in an area where military operations were taking place. He would work every day (trabajar, trabajar y trabajar was one of his slogans); he would walk towns, cities and rural areas two or three times a week; and he became the self-appointed public ombudsman defending citizens against official negligence. Actually, rather than act as the representative of the state he governed, he seemed more comfortable channeling citizen anger against a weak public administration—publicly lambasting ministers, generals, governors, and mayors for falling short in their duties. People loved the show. It was, obviously, televised. It ran for hours and hours, every Saturday, for eight years.
Uribe chronicles his life story, beginning with his early days as the son of a strong father, an imperial pater familias, and ending with his post-presidential career, where he has become a restless and active Tweeter (20 to 30 times a day), insulting his political enemies (and making new ones) or criticizing the current government. As he informs us, he “worries” for the future of Colombia.
The reader, however, is left trapped in a version of The World According to Garp. The self-promoting list of heroic acts, religious insights, puritan values, and no real humans in his lonely planet makes this book an effort to get through. A foreigner reading it will immediately think of Colombia (a country as big as Spain, France and Portugal together, and today Latin America’s third largest economy after Brazil and Mexico) as a banana republic where nothing happens if the president does not make it happen.
Yet, if it were not thanks to Colombia’s strong institutions, Uribe would still be president. It was the country’s robust media that started to question an all too powerful president right after he was reelected; it was an independent Supreme Court that initiated investigations against congressmen associated with the government and linked to paramilitary activities; and it was the powerful higher courts that counterattacked a government that started to spy on them. In short, Colombia was no one-man state.
Moreover, the book lacks a sense of humor or literary style of any kind. That said, some of the presidential anecdotes are interesting, particularly those related to military operations against the FARC. For example, reading about the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt, who was kidnapped by the FARC guerrillas during the 2002 presidential election, makes up for the many pages dedicated only to Uribe. The assassination of former minister Gilberto Echeverry—my colleague in the administration of President César Gaviria—a wonderful man and the governor of Antioquia, is also a great read (and is what starts the book).
Unlike the memoirs of former U.S. presidents, who are often concerned with defending their historical legacy, Uribe’s autobiography is permeated by the self-serving tone of a permanent candidate for office. It is not candid, but contained—to a point of being obsessive. It revolves around one person—Uribe—and the abandoned planet he describes has no real characters. He offers no tribute to his team, and narrates events as moments in which he was critical in the way things moved, one way or another.
Uribe uses his book to set the record straight on a number of issues that haunted him during his tenure. He explains why his father’s name, Alberto Uribe Sierra, appears related to Pablo Escobar, the drug lord, and why his adversaries are wrong to say they were close. The relationship was in fact marginal—more a function of the business connections among horse dealers in the same city than a questionable tie that influenced presidential policy. He also deals with his suggestion that the civilian vigilante groups that were created when he was governor of Antioquia (not by him) should use assault rifles, and how that mistake created the myth that he formed what later became paramilitary terror squads.
More complicated still was his relationship with paramilitaries, which his critics have suggested was overly warm—and which Uribe denies. The relationship was principally based on a mutual loathing of the communist groups fighting to bring down the state—and the eventual support from the paramilitaries was not the consequence of a quid pro quo.
He also discusses the incentives his government offered to the military for bringing in “corpses” of guerrillas, which led to the scandal of the “false positives” (more than 1,000 deaths of so-called guerrillas who later turned out to be innocent young men)—which he says was not the intent. The reality, though, is that such atrocities were the unfortunate consequence of his “reward” policies, rather than a deliberate policy objective.
Uribe considers himself a “survivor.” That was the word he used in a recent Univisión interview in the United States about his book. He sees himself as a heroic avenger of the type played by Mel Gibson, one who is always facing real fire from enemies. He proudly mentions his own penchant for weaponry in the book, noting casually at one point, “on my way out I grabbed a weapon to protect myself.”
He consistently hammers home his role—to paraphrase one recent U.S. president—as the ultimate Decider who needed to give his personal green light to decisions and operations. He states it was his personal responsibility (an expression found over 10 times throughout the book, underlining his almost pathological need for personal involvement and later crucifixion)—as if that were not the case for any president in such circumstances.
Uribe put his nation on the road to domestic peace, and his fellow citizens feel real gratitude for his achievement. But his memoir fails to provide a candid view of his life and his government. The ex-president seems to have decided to write an ode to himself, one that can be used by his close followers—those who are determined to get him reelected to a third term. This, I must say, describes Uribe quite well, in a sense, as a politician so eager to get back into the game that he will gamble even his own, very valuable, historic significance, to get back to the daily exercise of power.
Silva is a lawyer, journalist and communications consultant. He is the founder of Galileo 6, a strategic communications, political and crisis management firm based in Bogotá, Colombia.