A Latin leader set to defy leftist trend
Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe looks likely to win reelection Sunday.
As leftists and popu-list politicians - some of them overtly anti-American - gain strength across Latin America, Colombia's conservative president, Alvaro Uribe, stands out as a political island.Skip to next paragraph
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The slight, bespectacled yoga enthusiast with an amateur historian's interest in the US Civil War (he knows the Gettysburg Address by heart) is expected to be reelected here Sunday. Uribe has more than 57 percent support, enough to win elections in the first round, according to the Napoleón Franco Group, a polling firm here.
The reason, say observers, is that Colombians feel safer - and better off economically - today.
"Uribe is a remarkable leader," says Michael Shifter, vice president of the InterAmerican Dialogue, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "He has an acute sense of what the people want, and despite continuing, serious problems, has made real progress on the security front."
Indeed, three days before the elections wealthy young Colombians while away the late afternoon at trendy outdoor cafes in Bogotá. In Plaza Bolivar, school children in plaid uniforms race to scatter the pigeons and small groups of tourists gather for the changing of the presidential guard nearby.
Four years ago, when Mr. Uribe took office, Colombia looked much different. Car bombings and kidnappings were an almost daily occurrence. Talks between the government and leftist rebels to end 40 years of insurgency had just collapsed, and Frommer's didn't even bother including Colombia in its South America tour guide.
Today, the ongoing conflict between rebels and right-wing paramilitaries, both fueled by drug money, still kills thousands each year and has displaced, according to UN estimates, more than 2 million people. But there has been progress.
Homicides and kidnapping rates here are among the world's highest - but are down sharply. The murder rate has fallen 36 percent since 2002, according to Uribe's spokesman. Kidnappings dropped to 800 last year from nearly 3,000 in 2002, and are down 47 percent so far this year.
Highways in some parts of the country are still off limits and dangerous, but many that were long-controlled by bandits have been reopened.
The country's largest rebel group, the 17,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), preparing to celebrate its 42nd anniversary next week, still refuses to negotiate. But the smaller leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group is in preliminary peace talks, and 30,635 United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) rightist paramilitaries have demobilized.
The improved security situation in Colombia, meanwhile, has also helped the economy: reviving tourism, consumer demand, and investment. According to Central Bank statistics, foreign direct investment here is up fivefold - to $10 billion last year - since Uribe took office.
"I can go to the countryside for the weekend without being killed on the road, I can go out for lunch without fear of being kidnapped, and I have more money in my pocket. What's not to like?" asks Pedro Quintero, an accountant.
Uribe, a Harvard University graduate, is popular in Washington, too, where President Bush has referred to him as a "strong and principled leader," and has poured $3 billion in aid into Colombia since 2002, most of that for the war on drugs.
Despite having his hands tied by the war at home, Uribe is a natural bulwark to Washington nemesis Hugo Chávez, the leftist Venezuelan president, says Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a Latin America expert at The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., public policy think tank. "Uribe can be more forceful a counter than some of the more moderate left in the region, and the US needs that," says Mr. Vargas Llosa.