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Latin America Report

Why A Proposal To Rename A Miami Street For A Former Colombian President Is So Controversial

Then Colombian President Alvaro Uribe with military leaders in 2006.
Fernando Vergara
Then Colombian President Alvaro Uribe with military leaders in 2006.

Supporters of former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe want Miami-Dade County to honor him. Critics say it would honor a human rights violator.

There are few more polarizing figures in Latin America than former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Many Colombians revere the arch-conservative leader for beating back the country's violent Marxist guerrillas more than a decade ago.

Many others revile him for his alleged ties to right-wing paramilitary groups that have terrorized Colombia.

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Now Uribe's controversy has hit the streets of Miami. That is — a street in Miami-Dade, which his supporters here want to name part of after Uribe. WLRN's Luis Hernandez spoke with Americas editor Tim Padgett, who has interviewed Uribe in the past, about why this dispute is so heated.

Excerpts from their conversation:

HERNANDEZ: Tim, first: what's the Miami controversy all about?

PADGETT: Uribe's supporters here in the Colombian community have asked the Miami-Dade County Commission to name a stretch of Southwest 117th Avenue, between Bird Road and Coral Way, as "Alvaro Uribe Way." Conservatives on the commission put it on the agenda last week.

Uribe's critics here call that an outrage. They even held a protest last Friday in front of the Miami-Dade Government Center. They point out Uribe has been under house arrest in Colombia for a month now and that prosecutors there are deciding whether he should be charged with witness tampering in complaints that he aided right-wing paramilitary terrorist groups. We should point out Uribe denies those accusations, even though he has resigned his Senate seat.

READ MORE: Calling Colombians: With Florida in Play, Trump and Biden Reach Out to a Latino 'Sleeping Elephant'

You had encounters with Uribe back when he was president of Colombia from 2002 to 2010. What was he like? Does he deserve all the adulation he gets from his supporters here? And does he deserve all the condemnation that he gets from his critics?

Yes and yes. Uribe did knock down Colombia's Marxist, drug-trafficking, ransom-kidnaping guerrillas, known as the FARC. Uribe got $5 billion worth of U.S. aid to do it. But he did it. And that matters a lot because at the turn of the century, the FARC controlled large parts of Colombia.

But Uribe can also be a very bitter, Captain Ahab-sort of character. His father was killed by the FARC, and that's a big reason he opposes the peace agreement Colombia signed with the FARC a few years ago. It's also why he always seemed to ignore the human rights abuses of those right-wing paramilitary armies. They're responsible for ghastly massacres of anyone suspected of sympathizing with the FARC.

One of the most significant scandals of the Uribe presidency are the so-called "false-positive" cases, where the military was accused of falsely identifying some 10,000 people killed in the conflict as FARC guerrillas. I'll point out too that this week, according to the Associated Press, a U.S. defense cable from 2004 has surfaced that says Uribe "almost certainly" had ties to the paramilitaries and approved of their atrocities.

Many if not most Colombian expats came here to escape the FARC and the civil war, so Uribe is a heroic figure to them. But he's also a very bitter character – and critics say he aided the atrocities of right-wing paramilitary armies.

This dispute matters in the sense that Colombians are one of the largest immigrant groups in Florida, right?

That's right. It's why we're seeing the presidential campaigns pay attention to Colombian voters here for the first time in my memory. There are an estimated 150,000 or so Colombians registered to vote in Florida. Most of them are Uribe fans. And the Trump administration has come out against Uribe's house arrest in the hopes of winning more Colombian expat votes here.

Here in Miami-Dade, Republican mayoral runoff candidate Esteban "Steve" Bovo has also supported renaming that stretch of road for Uribe.


Why do so many Colombian expats here in South Florida seem to revere Uribe?

You have to remember, many if not most Colombian expats in Florida came here because they were escaping the FARC and the civil war. They had family members kidnapped or killed by the FARC. So Uribe is a heroic figure to them. And more than that, a lot of them will remind you that at the turn of the century, being Colombian carried this stigma, you know, of guerrillas and drug lords. Today, they say they feel the stigma is largely gone, and they give Uribe a lot of credit for that.

BACK TO THE AMERICAS? U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien receives a traditional Colombian sombrero vuelteado from Colombian expats, including Fabio Andrade (in mask), at a gathering in West Palm Beach last week.
Courtesy Americas Community Center
U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien receives a traditional sombrero from Colombian expats, including Fabio Andrade (in mask), who's leading the effort to rename a Miami street for former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, at a gathering in West Palm Beach in August.

And yet you pointed out in your Latin America Report last week that more Colombian voters, registered Democrat than Republican or independent. Why?

That's the Colombian paradox. But Colombia is a capitalist democracy. So in that regard, they're not like Cuban and Venezuelan expats who are trying to restore democracy back in their home countries. Here, Colombians tend to be more focused on issues that matter to other Hispanic voters, like health care and support for small businesses. The Biden campaign even held a Zoom meeting with Colombian expats over the weekend to discuss small business.

So what do you think will happen now, both for Uribe and his legal situation in Colombia and the effort to rename a part of Southwest 117th Avenue after him in Miami?

The Colombian Supreme Court decision to put Uribe under house arrest was unanimous. So some people might conclude that things don't look good for Uribe there. The Miami Dade Commission was supposed to take up the street renaming issue this week — but it's been inexplicably postponed. So stay tuned.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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