Americas magazine spoke with President Alvaro Uribe Velez at a time when two issues were dominating the news in Colombia: peace negotiations with illegal armed groups, and the signing of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States. As we were writing the introduction to this interview, Uribe had surprised Colombians and the international community with the release from prison of a group of guerrillas belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known as the FARC in Spanish) and with the gradual exoneration of a large number of them. This was done as a unilateral humanitarian gesture to win the freedom of those who had been kidnapped and to pave the way for the long-sought reconciliation of the Colombian people.
Alvaro Uribe was born 55 years ago in Medellin, the capital of Antioquia, a department in central Colombia. He was elected president in 2002 for four years and then re-elected in 2006 by a large margin. In his efforts to bring about peace for the country's nearly 45 million people, Uribe is working to strengthen democratic security, with the primary goal of bringing about social and economic harmony in a country marked historically by violence on different fronts.
Uribe has a law degree from the University of Antioquia, studied administration and management at Harvard University, and was also an associate professor at Oxford University in England. "I began to participate in politics before I was old enough to reason," he said wistfully. Along his career path toward Colombia's highest office, he served as mayor and councilman of his native city, governor of Antioquia, and national senator for two terms.
It was during his governorship that he put into practice the "community state" model whose principal characteristic is citizen participation in basic state decisions such as job creation, education, transparency in the management of public contracts, and public security. As president, he took up this idea again through weekly meetings of so-called community councils. This initiative constitutes "a permanent exercise in democracy," Uribe said, explaining that the times in which we live "demand that representative democracy and participatory democracy alternate in a very balanced way, because each gives the other legitimacy." Every week, Uribe travels with his ministers to a different part of the country to listen firsthand to citizens' complaints and to offer possible solutions to their problems. Americas was present at a community council meeting that took place at a distance-learning university (Universidad Nacional Abierta y a Distancia) in a Bogota neighborhood. There, in addition to discussing a national teachers' strike and progress being made on the educational front, Uribe talked about government expectations for the ongoing peace process.
He told the audience he hopes that justice can proceed quickly under the Justice and Peace Law, approved recently by Congress, and that the country can overcome the tragedy of violence. The new law provides a legal framework for the demobilization of different illegal armed groups that are holding peace talks with the government.
Now that the release of a group of the FARC is under discussion, Uribe said he will also consider prison releases for members of the National Liberation Army (ELN) if those peace talks move forward. The ELN is another illegal armed group which has been using Cuba as a venue for negotiations with the Colombian government.
Uribe noted, however, that the issue of prison releases must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis, since the new law applies only to paramilitaries who were already in prison before this process and who opt to submit themselves to the law's truth-telling provisions.
On the role of the OAS in the Colombian peace process, Uribe expressed his gratitude to Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, to the OAS Permanent Council, and to all OAS officials: "What would we have done without the OAS! …