Colombian president declares emergency

Uribe imposes `war' tax as nation toughens stand against rebels

August 13, 2002|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BOGOTA, Colombia - Colombian President Alvaro Uribe declared a state of emergency and imposed a wartime surtax yesterday, taking his first steps in a presidency he promised would offer a "firm hand" against rebels.

The limited state of emergency allows the government to prohibit public rallies or media interviews with guerrilla commanders, among other things, and allows for curfews, wiretapping and searches without a court order.

Uribe made the announcement before dawn, after a six-hour Cabinet meeting, declaring that it was necessary to combat a recent wave of terrorism. He said the new tax would be aimed at the wealthy in order to expand the armed forces.

"He's sending a message that these are not normal times, sacrifices must be made and liberties must be restricted," said Daniel Garcia-Pena, a former peace commissioner. "The symbolic aspect is very significant."

Announcing the measure, Interior Minister Fernando Londono said: "The nation is subject to a regime of terror in which democratic authority is sinking."

Uribe's step illustrates a fundamental change in Colombia's effort to terminate a decades-long insurgency. After four years of rule by a president who sought peace through negotiation, Uribe is relying on broad popular support to take more decisive action.

The latest measure reflects a shift in public opinion and paves the way for a heightened state of war. Although previous governments imposed a state of emergency for brief periods five times in the past decade, the last occasion was seven years ago.

The emergency decree seemed to be widely accepted. Just days ago, rebels launched mortar attacks at the presidential palace during Uribe's inauguration. The mortar shells struck an impoverished neighborhood and killed 21 people. An additional 115 died in military skirmishes around the country in the following days.

"This is what Colombia voted for - a turn toward authority," said Alejo Vargas, a political science professor at Bogota's National University. "Now let's see what results they get."

The mortar attack was attributed to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, leftist rebels known as the FARC who have engaged in guerrilla warfare for 38 years in a crusade to overthrow the state and implement Marxist rule.

Uribe vowed to bring authority back to Colombia after years of fruitless peace talks under President Andres Pastrana. Polls show he enjoys a 77 percent approval rating.

Dubbed a "state of internal commotion," Uribe's measure is a step below the more drastic "state of siege," eliminated in 1991 with the writing of a new constitution. The emergency measure lasts 90 days, but it can be overturned by the Supreme Court or renewed twice with congressional approval for as long as 270 days.

Politicians pressured Pastrana to declare a state of emergency last month, when the FARC launched an intimidation campaign against the nation's mayors. Pastrana said the state of emergency was "useless" and refused to use it.

But critics said Uribe must be closely watched. Past governments often abused the stricter state of siege, leading the Supreme Court to overturn it. Even before taking office, Uribe's interior minister expressed a desire to go back to the old way of doing things.

"Pablo Escobar [the late drug kingpin] would set off a car bomb, and they'd start censoring the press coverage of guerrillas or throw striking union leaders in jail," said Garcia-Pena.

"It extended governments blank checks to ignore the Constitution and Congress."

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