Colombia's Uribe: A Tough Leadership Style in a Once-Dangerous Part of the World
STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS — Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe delivered an impassioned defense of his tactics in pursuing the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, between 2002-2010.
When he came to power in 2002, political assassinations were rife. Guerrillas and paramilitaries controlled large swathes of territory and spread fear across the country. Uribe faced resistance — even among supporters — to his plan to aggressively take on Colombia’s security challenges. But his crackdown on leftist guerrillas and disbanding of rightist paramilitary forces led to a steep drop in Colombia’s murder and kidnapping rate and a striking economic recovery, all of which won him praise both at home and abroad while in office.
When he was pressured to try to find ways to accommodate the FARC, Uribe pushed back. “I fought against the idea the guerrillas in my country could be justified,’’ Uribe told Stanford business school students in a Feb. 14 View from the Top lecture at the Knight Management Center’s CEMEX auditorium.
His remarks were largely a catalogue of crisis moments throughout his two terms in office and how he dealt with them: a kind of lesson to future business leaders in how to boldly manage unforeseen challenges. In Uribe’s case, this often meant fighting back against pressure to relax his campaign against the FARC when there were setbacks.
His basic message for future leaders, as he put it in an interview just before his speech: Stick to your core beliefs when confronted with unanticipated moments of crisis, and build a team that can help you effectively confront difficult challenges.
Uribe recalled rebuffing a request by former French President Jacques Chirac to negotiate with the FARC to win the release of a French-Colombian citizen who ended up spending 6.5 years in captivity in the jungle. He recounted a 2003 botched military rescue attempt in which 9 of 11 hostages were killed, including a former defense minister and a former provincial governor. Faced with calls for him to abandon military rescue operations, Uribe plodded on. Similarly, Uribe recalled the decision to launch an air strike against a FARC compound inside Ecuadorian territory in March 2008. The attack, which left at least 21 rebels dead, sparked an international crisis that put Ecuador and Colombia on the brink of war. “Was it the best option?’’ Uribe asked. “No. … I did it because it was a necessity.’’
When political allies urged him to dismiss the head of the Colombian air force in the aftermath of the strike, Uribe instead went on television and congratulated him.
Addressing allegations that human rights abuses were committed during his administration, Uribe said: “We did our best to [uphold] the idea of security with democratic values to protect every Colombian.’’
“All of my life I have tried my best to respect in the law,’’ he added.
Uribe’s tough leadership style stretched to fiscal and economic policies too. During his time in office, Colombia took the unfavorable step of reducing some pensions to combat the deficit, he said. He also negotiated a free trade agreement with the United States, which was unpopular domestically. The agreement was only finally concluded last October, more than a year after Uribe left office.
Uribe heralded tax reforms implemented during his presidency that fed greater investment in a wide range of sectors from cosmetics to biofuels.
Colombia’s economic turnaround has been profound, with a drop in poverty and an increase in foreign direct investment over the past decade. Uribe said he was surprised how quickly the economy improved. He attributed the quick turnaround in large part to the “entrepreneurial spirit’’ of Colombians.
Uribe, who was limited to two terms in office but remains a political leader of Colombia’s main opposition party, offered some leadership counsel on regional problems. He urged Venezuela’s opposition to reach out to poor voters, and he praised Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s leadership in pursuing his own war against drug trafficking. The United States could help Calderon, Uribe said, by doing more to stop the flow of semiautomatic rifles across the border to Mexico.