Foreign Policy Blogs

The Politics of Chavez and Uribe: Distinct Ideologies, Similar Strategies?

President Alvaro Uribe recently moved one step closer to running for a third term in office. The Colombian Senate voted 56-2 last week to approve a plan for legal changes that would enable him to be reelected a second time. The process must now be approved by the House of Representatives and pass a nationwide referendum, in addition to being vetted by the nation’s Supreme Court. The next presidential election, for a four-year term, is scheduled for May 2010. The Americas Quarterly provides further details here.

The popularity of Uribe remains high, at around 70% nationwide. In large part this is due to successes by his administration in the war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). This includes a strike by the Colombian military into Ecuadorian territory on March 1, 2008, killing one of the FARC leaders, Raúl Reyes. Later that year, in July, the Colombian military pulled off the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt, three US contractors held in captivity since 2003, and 11 others.

With Uribe set to add another four years to his nearly completed eight in office, what does this mean for Colombia in terms of executive control and the transfer of power to new leadership? Latin America has a history of strongmen clinging to power for years (or families, in the current case of Christina Fernández de Kirchner). Despite the successes his administration has had in bringing peace and security to large areas of the country, there is legitimate concern that Uribe could remain in power for longer than is healthy for Colombian democracy.

It appears that if Uribe runs for office again, he will win reelection. Hugo Chávez, meanwhile, has lead Venezuela for more than a decade and plans to be in power for at least ten more years.

Are voting and “democratic processes” being used as political cover by the Venezuelan and Colombian leaders to maintain their personal power? Some critics might scoff at a comparison between these two presidents and their country’s elections, but it is worth considering ways in which their governing styles overlap.

Hernando Salazar of BBC Mundo wrote an interesting article asking whether there is much of a difference between Chávez and Uribe. While relations may be tense between Venezuela and Colombia, and the presidents are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, they have a number of similarities. Salazar mentions the following:

1. Each is a charismatic leader who has garnered widespread and highly motivated supporters, yet they may show some authoritarian tendencies (see also “caudillo”). They successfully use the media to promote their image.

2. Each desire to stay in power for a longer period of time. Chávez has said that he will remain as President until 2021 and beyond. A referendum allowing the indefinite election of political leaders was passed by Venezuelans in February, 2009.

3. Each has close ties with the military. Chávez rose from within their ranks, while Uribe has used armed force and Plan Colombia (support provided from the United States) to push back the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN). He has also claimed that some of his strong-arm tactics are part of wider efforts against terrorism.

4. Each is a polarizing figure in their own country. Both leaders have dedicated followers who as a group take on their leaders’ names (“Chavistas” and “Uribistas”), yet at the same time they draw intense criticism from opponents.

Is is possible that Chávez and Uribe are more alike than different?



David D. Sussman

David D. Sussman is currently a PhD Candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Tufts University), in Boston, Massachusetts. Serving as a fellow at the Feinstein International Center, he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study the lives of Colombian refugees and economic migrants in Caracas, Venezuela. David has worked on a variety of migrant issues that include the health of displaced persons, domestic resettlement of refugees, and structured labor-migration programs. He holds a Masters in International Relations from the Fletcher School, where he studied the integration of Somali and Salvadoran immigrants. David has a B.A. from Dartmouth College and is fluent in Spanish. He has lived in Colombia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico and Venezuela, and also traveled throughout Latin America. In his free time David enjoys reading up on international news, playing soccer, cooking arepas, and dancing salsa casino. Areas of Focus: Latin America; Migration; Venezuela.