Álvaro Uribe’s Suspicious Popularity
Whenever Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s name is mentioned in the U.S. press, it is seldom without reference to his overwhelming popularity. When he met with President Obama in June, Obama closed their joint press conference by joking that, “The other thing I should say is that if I were to serve two terms, I’m fairly confident that I would not have the 70 percent approval rating that President Uribe has.” Since he became president in 2002, Uribe’s popularity in the polls has seldom been lower than 70% and reached a high of 91% in July of 2008.
The perception of such popularity is politically useful. The Economist notes that Uribe’s “overwhelming support” helped convince the Colombian Congress and courts that the Constitution should be changed to allow his first re-election in 2006, and he is counting on it to push through a further amendment that will let him run once more in 2010. Colombians, it seems, do not hold scandals against their leader. Not even offenses as egregious as the paramilitary ties of dozens of his parliamentary allies (including his cousin), or the systematic extrajudicial murder of civilians bogusly classified as subversives. After all, as the New York Times editorialized last year, he is “The leader who brought Colombia back from the brink and onto a path toward peace.”
But if we look at the polls that rate Uribe so highly, grave questions must be asked about the reliability of the public opinion industry in Colombia. For a poll result to be accurate it needs to be drawn from a random and representative sample. Yet Invamer-Gallup, Colombia’s leading polling agency, only conducts interviews in the nation’s four largest cities! While the citizens of Bogotá, Medellín, Barranquilla, and Cali are without doubt entitled to their opinions, and may even strongly support their president, by no stretch of the imagination can the views of people who make up less than a third of Colombia’s population be considered representative. Even worse, the views of the more than ten million Colombians who live in rural areas are totally ignored. Imagine if a pollster reported that President Obama had an 80% approval rating, based on survey results from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. Who could take it seriously?
Colombia’s long history of political assassinations has created an environment in which dissident voices are reluctant to run for office. This is one of the reasons that in Uribe’s 2006 re-election, only 45% of the population bothered to vote, compared with 63% and 74% in elections in neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela held the same year. At the ballot box, Uribe has never achieved the level of support the pollsters say he has. Colombia is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in Latin America, and the U.S. military is currently planning to expand its presence in seven new bases there. If President Obama is cutting Uribe slack because of his “overwhelming popularity,” maybe he should think again.
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