One step forward . . .

In opinion polls Uribe regularly gets upwards of 80 per cent support. Since the dark days the politi

No sooner had Ingrid Betancourt touched down in Bogotá than the film industry magazine Variety was reporting Tinseltown as "hot for Colombian hostage drama". The industry has been sniffing around all those involved and making "rights deals". Little wonder: the operation that released the human rights activist and former presidential candidate could have been conceived by a Hollywood script writer. Her guerrilla captors had been infiltrated by the army and were persuaded to allow Betancourt and 14 other hostages to board a helicopter, which then whisked them to safety.

Good news seldom makes headlines. The rescue of Betancourt was an exception, a triumph for Colombia, where the news is usually grislier than a Tarantino film, and in particular a triumph for President Álvaro Uribe, who has faced a barrage of international criticism for his hardline military approach to the insurgents and the civil conflict that has left tens of thousands of Colombians dead and three million more displaced.

There is a longer-running, slower-burning tale of success in Colombia that has struggled to make the news, let alone the big screen.

When I went to live there in 2001, family and friends responded as if I had declared a move to Baghdad. My Colombian friends were no more upbeat. The country was in a collective state of depression following the collapse of peace talks between the then-president, Andrés Pastrana, and the Farc guerrillas. The government had ceded control of a swath of land to the rebels and travel by road was near-impossible because of the threat of kidnapping. Paramilitary death squads tore around the countryside wreaking revenge on those considered guerrilla sympathisers. The murder rate for the city where I lived, Medellín, was one of the highest in the world.

Colombians are intensely patriotic - they love their national food and music, and boast of their breathtaking mountains, coasts and jungles. But for young people there seemed no future. "The country has been a bloodbath since the Conquest. Why would it ever change?" was a common refrain after a cerveza or two. In the run-up to the 2002 election in which Uribe came to power there was only one issue on the national agenda: security. The night he was elected I lay in bed listening to helicopters circling over my apartment and feeling Colombia was under siege, a feeling that intensified when, minutes before the new president was sworn in, 13 people died in explosions metres from the presidential palace.

Since those dark days the political landscape has changed completely. The paramilitaries have laid down their arms; the Farc have suffered losses of territory and leadership; their former ally Hugo Chávez has been obliged to denounce them and their armed struggle; and now their highest-profile hostage has been snatched away.

The cynicism with which Colombians talk about politics and politicians has melted away: in opinion polls Uribe regularly gets upwards of 80 per cent support. When I interviewed a former Farc commander this year, he confided, off the record, that his new hero was the president. And yet, the man with the iron will and famously ascetic habits could now become an obstacle to further progress.

Uribe is certainly equipped to impose order upon chaos, but he has failed to address the root causes of the conflict: income inequality and a weak civil society. He has shown disdain for important democratic institutions, bullying the judiciary and denouncing human rights organisations and his political opponents as "guerrilla sympathisers". His supporters are petitioning him to stand for an unconstitutional third term.

The right thing for Colombia now, however, would be for Uribe to stand aside.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism