Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala

Colombian president renowned for his oratory and negotiating skills

Thursday 15 September 2005 00:00 BST

Julio César Turbay Ayala was President of Colombia at a time - 1978-82 - when guerrilla warfare and drug-trafficking had come to dominate the political life of a country that prided itself on its long-established democratic institutions and traditions. His critics accused him of an over-indulgent attitude towards the so-called "emerging class" of nouveaux riches from the Caribbean coastal region, where the marijuana that fuelled Colombia's first drug boom was cultivated, packed and shipped to the United States. Nevertheless, as an ex-president of vast experience, he remained a respected and influential figure in Colombian politics until his death.

Turbay was probably best known abroad for his role in negotiating a peaceful conclusion to a two-month siege of the Dominican Republic's embassy in Bogotá, after an urban guerrilla group, M-19, had taken 16 foreign diplomats and a number of other guests hostage during a party in February 1980. The guerrillas were eventually allowed to fly to Cuba with a million dollars in their pockets; their original demands for the release of jailed comrades, and a ransom of $50m for the hostages, were turned down. After the hostage-takers were finally pardoned in 1990, their leader, Rosemberg Pabón, praised Turbay for his calm and restrained handling of the crisis.

There was a less happy outcome when Turbay's own daughter, Diana, a journalist, was kidnapped on the orders of a drug boss, Pablo Escobar, in August 1990: she was killed in a bungled rescue attempt by the army five months later.

Turbay used draconian measures to combat M-19 and Colombia's other guerrilla armies, who constantly threatened the country's stability. Within weeks of taking office as President in 1978, he introduced a Security Statute giving sweeping powers to the security forces to combat armed insurgencies, kidnappings, extortion and the other endemic ills of Colombia's embattled democracy. The statute's most controversial clause gave military tribunals the power to try civilians.

Julio César Turbay was a dominant figure in the Liberal party, one of Colombia's two traditional political organisations, for more than 60 years. He was renowned for his negotiating skills, which helped to hold the party together through countless vicissitudes. But of late he had become an enthusiastic supporter of President Alvaro Uribe, a former Liberal who broke with the party to stand as an independent candidate in the 2002 elections. Turbay also backed Uribe's campaign to amend the constitution so that he might stand for re-election next year, and he was one of the founders of Patria Nueva (New Country), a movement formed by members of both traditional parties as an electoral vehicle for Uribe. This caused much bitterness and recrimination in Liberal circles, as Turbay had always been against the principle of immediate presidential re-election: the Colombian constitution, as it stands, allows a President to stand for a second four-year term only after one term as elapsed.

Julio César Turbay was born in Bogotá in 1916, into a Lebanese immigrant family. Unusually for a Colombian establishment politician, he did not attend university. He learnt his politics from the grassroots, and his career began young: at the age of 21 he was already mayor of Girardot, a town on the great Magdalena river, west of the capital. From 1943 to 1949 he was a Liberal member of the lower house of Congress. Elected to the party's national executive in 1953, he was minister of mines in 1957-58, during a short-lived military junta. He then served in the so-called National Front, when the leaders of the two traditional parties, Liberals and Conservatives, agreed to alternate in power for 16 years, from 1958, to allow the country to convalesce from a decade of communal violence and military rule. Turbay was first elected to the Senate in 1962, and was re-elected four times.

Thanks to his combination of crowd-pleasing oratory and a gift for striking deals in smoke-filled rooms, Turbay steadily climbed the greasy pole of Liberal politics, securing the presidency of the Senate in 1976 and finally the party's presidential nomination two years later. Before that he had served spells as ambassador in London and Washington, two more indispensable stops along the way to Colombian political glory. His last public appointment was as ambassador to the Vatican, from 1995 to 1998.

By the time he won the Liberal nomination in 1978, the cosy National Front arrangement had ended, and he had to face a Conservative opponent, Belisario Betancur, who enjoyed the support of the growing number of political independents. But he won convincingly. Before that, to win the Liberal nomination, he had to defeat a former President, Carlos Lleras Restrepo, whose campaign focused on denouncing the wheeler-dealing style of politics personified by Turbay.

A former Conservative president of Colombia, Andrés Pastrana, put it more charitably: "Turbay lived and breathed politics 24 hours a day."

Colin Harding

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