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Colombian leader has strong grip - and yen for yoga

By Rachel Van DongenSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 2003


In the year since he has taken office, President Álvaro Uribe has come to mean many things to the Colombian people: Commander in chief, poncho-clad populist, yoga enthusiast. But mostly, observers say, he has gained stature as the strong leader many feel this nation has lacked for decades.

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Under President Uribe's tenure, the violence and instability that have disrupted Colombian life over years of civil war have diminished. And that has left Colombians feeling more secure - even hopeful.

"In his first year of government, he has not only shown a seriousness of purpose and a capacity for work without precedent, but he has also given rebirth to hope in a country whose morale was at rock bottom," noted an editorial last Sunday in El Tiempo, Colombia's most prominent newspaper

According to the Defense Ministry, kidnapping has decreased by a third since Uribe took power a year ago Thursday. Terrorist attacks targeting population centers are down 78 percent it reports, and murders have declined by 16 percent.

In a country that has seen 39-years of brutal civil war between leftist guerrillas and rightist paramilitaries fueled by drug money, that is welcome news.

But questions remain whether the president's first-year gains stem more from his charisma than from broad reform. Even if they do represent tangible progress, some wonder if Uribe can sustain the momentum.

Uribe won election on the heels of his predecessor's failed peace negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Latin America's oldest insurgency group. He promised an all-out war against the leftist rebel army.

Though he has taken several important steps on the battlefield, there has been no major dismantling of the FARC's infrastructure - which some think may be in a tactical retreat.

"I think [Uribe] is benefiting more from style than substance," says FernandoGiraldo, dean of the political science department atBogotá's Javeriana University.

Mr. Giraldo believes Uribe is garnering kudos because he appears to be the "common man."

"He hasn't done anything," says Giraldo. "But the people think he has. It's all a communications strategy."

Yet it may just be that Uribe's willingness to mix with the people has been at the root of his success.

Despite at least four attempts on his life since beginning his run for president in June 2001, he travels to wartorn regions nearly every weekend to hold "community councils." He'll listen for hours as residents of far-flung villages talk about sewage problems or downed telephone lines.

Recently, in a symbolic move showing that he could govern from what El Tiempo called "the wolf's mouth," Uribe moved his entire government for three days to northeast Arauca Province - possibly the most violent in Colombia.

When the president travels to these communities, he does so in a straw hat and poncho, clothing from the Antioquia region where he was born.

In an unprecedented national version of the community council, he took center stage with his cabinet ministers in a live television forum that drew nearly 5,000 questions from viewers via phone and e-mail.