BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Carlos Gaviria, a former Colombian presidential candidate who became an icon of the country's democratic left while presiding over its constitutional court, died Tuesday night. He was 77.
Gaviria died two weeks after checking into a Bogota hospital with a respiratory infection.
President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed the jurist's death on Twitter, saying his passing represents "an enormous loss for the country."
A longtime law professor, among whose students was the conservative former President Alvaro Uribe, Gaviria was appointed to the newly created high court after a peace deal with leftist rebels that led to the writing of a new constitution in 1991.
From the bench, Gaviria presided over a number of landmark cases that left an indelible progressive mark on otherwise deeply conservative Colombia. Among them were rulings in favor of the decriminalization of possessing small amounts of narcotics, same sex unions and euthanasia.
All such rulings were grounded in the constitutional right to the free development of one's personality.
While Gaviria, an atheist, often stood to the left of mainstream Colombians, his intellectual stature was never questioned and the high esteem in which he was held helped establish the court's reputation as an institution beyond the pale of corruptible politics. That reputation is now under siege by revelations that one high court magistrate negotiated bribes to rule in favor of a company in a bankruptcy manner.
After stepping down from the bench in 2001, Gaviria entered politics and developed a reputation for high-minded discourse and mild manners that distinguished him from the country's guerrilla insurgency and leftist firebrands across the region.
As a presidential candidate in 2006 for the Alternative Democratic Pole party, he surged past a rival from the 150-year-old Liberal Party to reach a runoff with his former pupil, Uribe. Although he fell well short, Gaviria secured 2.6 million votes, more than any Colombian leftist candidate had until that point.
On the campaign trail he earned the nickname "Santa Claus," a nod to the bushy beard and cuddlesome middle that helped soften his fierce opposition to a free trade agreement with the U.S. or admiration for Cuba's communist revolution.
"I want to show Colombians that being a leftist doesn't mean you have to be aggressive," he told The Associated Press in a 2006 interview.