During his two terms as president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe was the US’s closest ally in Latin America, railing against the revolutionary socialist government in neighbouring Venezuela.
Now, with the Venezuelan opposition in disarray and its leader, Juan Guaidó, having failed to unseat Nicolás Maduro as president, Mr Uribe said that US sanctions against Caracas have not worked and he fears Venezuela is fast becoming another Cuba.
“Tyranny has established itself,” Mr Uribe told the Financial Times in a video interview from his wife’s family ranch near Medellín.
“When my generation was young, every year we’d say ‘this year the Cuban revolution will fall’ and it never fell,” said Mr Uribe, still Colombia’s most powerful politician at the age of 68. “It stabilised and we’ve lost three generations. It pains me to think history might repeat itself in Venezuela.”
Mr Uribe said at one point he believed Venezuela’s military might abandon Mr Maduro and support Mr Guaidó. “But the problem is that a lot of top people in the armed forces have been bribed by the government,” he said.
Mr Uribe said there are many reasons why the Maduro regime has proved so resilient, not least because “the economic sanctions [imposed by the US] haven’t worked”.
“While Russia and China are giving financial support it’s very difficult [to have change]”, he added.
US officials believe Venezuela’s leaders have diversified their sources of foreign exchange to make up for the loss of dollars from oil exports, exporting illegally mined gold to the Middle East and facilitating drug shipments to the United States. The once-wealthy economy, having cratered over the past five years, has plunged to subsistence level for most of the population.
“Unfortunately the dictatorship in Venezuela has stabilised,” Mr Uribe said. “I see a very worrying future for Venezuela and a lot of risks for Colombia.”
Since leaving the presidency, Mr Uribe has remained centre stage and still dominates Colombia’s political landscape with a personality that polarises the country. He led a successful referendum campaign against the 2016 peace agreement which his successor, Juan Manuel Santos, signed with the Farc, saying it was too generous to the guerrillas. In 2018, he was instrumental in propelling Colombia’s current leader, Iván Duque, to the presidency.
Malcolm Deas, a historian and expert on Colombia who taught Mr Uribe at Oxford university in the 1990s, says Colombian opinion is divided “over the provisions of the peace accord, over Duque, even over Uribe”.
“Uribe left office in 2010 with extraordinary ratings in the polls, of 70 per cent and above,” Mr Deas said. “Since then his popularity has fallen . . . his reputation has suffered from the scandals inherent in eight years of government, his feud with President Santos and prolonged legal vendettas.”
In 2022, Colombia will choose a new president. Conservatives — along with many foreign investors — fear that if the left wins it could turn the country into the next Venezuela.
That may seem unlikely. Colombians have witnessed Venezuela’s collapse at close quarters and suffered its consequences, including the arrival of nearly 2m poor and hungry migrants. Some 93 per cent of Colombians have an unfavourable view of Mr Maduro, one recent poll found.
But radical leftist candidate Gustavo Petro, who finished second in the 2018 election, is determined to run again. He is polling consistently well in a country that has suffered from the wave of discontent that swept through the Andean region late last year, which has been subdued in 2020 only because of the pandemic.
Mr Uribe warns that the far-left could take power and wreck Colombia’s economy which, before coronavirus, was among the fastest growing in the region.
“The extreme left doesn’t threaten expropriation, but then neither did [late Venezuelan president Hugo] Chávez,” he said. “But when they get into power, they either expropriate companies or they asphyxiate them with taxes and regulations.”
He acknowledged Colombia will end this year “with worrying levels of debt, deficit, poverty and unemployment” and advocated modest tax hikes to raise money to help the poor. At the same time, he said, “the important thing is not to lose investment grade status or the confidence of investors”.
Where Mr Uribe will be in 2022 is a matter of debate. His most vociferous opponents want him behind bars, having long accused him of links to far-right paramilitary death squads, charges he vehemently denies. He is under investigation for alleged witness-tampering and bribery and recently spent two months under house arrest on the orders of a judge.
That decision caused uproar in Colombia, testament to the strength of feeling Mr Uribe still arouses. Thousands of people took to the streets in protest. Others did so in celebration.
With 18 months to go before the election, Mr Uribe was reluctant to say whom he will back, but whoever wins his support is likely to be a leading contender.
“A consummate politician and communicator, Uribe is by no means a spent force,” Mr Deas said.