SOMEONE once said that former presidents are like old furniture. One thinks of a chest, revered for its noble appearance but no longer in use, eaten by termites, falling apart. Ever since modern medicine made longevity the rule and not the exception, countries have been accumulating these antiques. Four ex-presidents are living in the United States: the 39th, the 41st, the 42nd and the 43rd; it’s very likely that the 44th will occupy some dusty corner until nearly the middle of the 21st century.
However, Colombia’s former president, Álvaro Uribe, is refusing to play this part.
For many years, Colombia’s presidency followed the Mexican model: a monarchical ruler for a single term of office, with re-election prohibited by law, as a vaccine against strongmen who fell in love with power. This was a wise rule, given that Latin American leaders often prefer the Vatican’s electoral system: a president who stays in office until he dies or, in rare cases, is too ill to serve. Fidel Castro is one such case, and after manipulating constitutional reforms to allow them to stand for re-election, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela (who is battling cancer) aspire to follow in his footsteps.
Colombia has moved in this direction. Thanks to his successful fight against the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and his having restored the country’s faith in the future, Mr. Uribe was a very popular president. He was also very fond of power. For that reason he fostered a constitutional amendment that, in 2006, allowed him to stand for re-election and stay in office for eight years instead of four. In 2010 he pushed for a referendum that would let him run for a third term, but — in an act of dignity rare in our region — the proposal was declared unconstitutional by the country’s highest court. Reluctantly, Mr. Uribe gave up power. The last thing he did was handpick his successor, Juan Manuel Santos, the former defense minister, who easily won the vote.
At that stage, Mr. Uribe should have retired to his cattle ranch, gone off to ride his horses and create a foundation for the defense of his political legacy. Instead, he decided to live, supposedly for reasons of security, in a police barracks in the capital, Bogotá. There, he can get together with officers, among whom he has always been popular for his harsh stance against the guerrillas, and dash off criticisms of his successor.
Among Mr. Uribe’s main causes of complaint are the so-called “political prisoners” — Uribe supporters who have been imprisoned on corruption charges, or for participating in illegal recordings of Supreme Court judges, or for links with paramilitary groups, or for extrajudicial murders. Admirably, considering his connection with the former president, Mr. Santos has pursued these cases, and Mr. Uribe will not forgive him for it.
Mr. Uribe has never written much; he’s not a person who enjoys developing an argument across the pages of an essay. However, he is addicted to Twitter (@AlvaroUribeVel has 1.3 million followers) and loves short phrases: slogans, more than thoughts. He spends his time, day and night, firing at (he himself uses this verb: “disparar”) President Santos and his alleged acts of “treason.” Mr. Santos has sold his soul to terrorists and Hugo Chávez, the tweets say, and is driving the country into chaos. Colombia’s hard-won peace, according to Mr. Uribe, will crumble under a resurgence of drug-financed guerrilla violence.
His fury has led some retired military officers to go so far as to talk of the need to stage a coup d’état against the president. A coup isn’t very likely, but another constitutional reform, allowing the messianic Mr. Uribe to run again in 2014, is possible; his supporters are already pushing for it. Failing this, what we can expect is the creation of a new party on the right, with a figurehead as a presidential candidate, and Mr. Uribe as the true leader. This means that in two years we won’t be moving forward, but back: the election will be a plebiscite, yet again, in favor of Mr. Uribe or against him.
The ancient Greeks had a venerable institution to defend democracy against tyranny: ostracism. According to Plutarch, ostracism — which consisted of expulsion from the city-state for 10 years — was not punishment but a protective measure, a way of making the eminent humble again. It’s a better answer to the problem of succession than some others.
There are many of us in Colombia who would like to see our vigorous ex-president giving self-improvement lectures abroad or consulting for some foreign corporation. Unfortunately, he’d rather be a nuisance in Colombia, tweeting and sowing trouble and rejoicing every time the FARC tries to assassinate a political figure or plants a bomb. Every military defeat for Mr. Santos is a triumph for Mr. Uribe: for him, the country has been heading for the abyss ever since it’s been out of his hands. But never in recent decades have the economic figures (inflation, unemployment, growth) been so good. And if the security situation continues to be difficult, the homicide rates are no higher than they were under Mr. Uribe. In fact, they’re still going down.
This is why many Colombians dream of something resembling ostracism and wish that piece of old furniture called Álvaro Uribe would stop getting in everybody’s way in the middle of the living room.