Order and intensity

No Lost Causes, by Alvaro Uribe Vélez, Celebra, RRP£18.99/$26.95, 336 pages

Alvaro Uribe is one of this century’s most effective and controversial world leaders – and one of the most unusual. Even his wife has described him as “the strangest man I’ve ever known.”

I was among three FT journalists who interviewed him one rainy night in Bogotá three years ago, when Uribe was wondering whether to run for a third term as Colombian president. An austere man, with a skin pallor that suggested the spiritual intensity of an El Greco figure, he called the choice “the crossroads of his soul”.

Uribe would certainly have won an election, though another four-year term would also have cast him as just another populist caudillo no better than Hugo Chávez, his socialist Venezuelan counterpart. Yet Uribe wanted to complete the near-miraculous transformation of Colombia he had wrought. When he first won the presidency in 2002, Colombia was dominated by the drugs trade and violent paramilitary and guerrilla groups. Now, although no paradise, it is among South America’s most successful countries.

In the end, the Colombian supreme court barred him from running again and Uribe finished his second term in 2010. No Lost Causes is a carefully calibrated account of his personal and political life that does not give much away. Nonetheless, his relentless – and for many, insufferable – intensity emerges, such as his habit of checking airport bathrooms for cleanliness. “Some people called this micromanaging – others thought it was just strange – and maybe they were right on both counts.”

Uribe was, in some ways, a Margaret Thatcher of Latin America: an outsider never afraid to pursue unpopular policies that he thought were right. He is still lionised by supporters for having quelled the leftwing guerrilla movements, especially the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc). Yet he also faces criticism, with some casting him as a latter-day Augusto Pinochet or Alberto Fujimori, the rightwing hard men of recent Latin American history. That comparison is unfair – Uribe left office with a 75 per cent approval rating. But his presidency certainly had sinister aspects. Many aides have since been subject to judicial investigations for alleged drug or paramilitary links. No scandal has yet attached directly to Uribe himself, and in this book he crisply dismisses the possibility that any should.

Born in 1952, Uribe was the son of a successful rancher. His father’s murder, by the Farc in 1983, was a defining moment: “In that instant I became a member of the community, half of all Colombians, who have lost a loved one to violence.” Uribe denies any direct link, such as a vendetta, between the death and his subsequent political career, instead saying that it fomented an overwhelming desire “to make the killing stop [in Colombia], so that there may be peace.”

Uribe’s formula for achieving that was to assert the state’s presence and the rule of law in vast swathes of the country that had never known either. His pro-business policies encouraged foreign investment, and he oversaw a moderate rise in social spending. Uribe called his approach “democratic security”.

Sometimes it meant pursuing peace: during his presidency, about 20,000 rightwing paramilitaries demobilised, albeit in an imperfect process. More often it meant war. One reason why the current peace talks have any chance of success is that the Farc are militarily cornered.

Media attacks on Uribe, now on the board of News Corp, are still common. Sympathisers say these are evidence that the dark forces he took on are seeking revenge. Critics dismiss such notions, and perhaps also this book, as another feint by this consummate politician. What is hard to deny is that Uribe left his country safer and more prosperous than he found it.

John Paul Rathbone is the FT’s Latin America editor

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