A Latin leader set to defy leftist trend
Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe looks likely to win reelection Sunday.
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Uribe's tough antirebel offensive and willingness to extradite suspected drug traffickers to the US also play well. The State Department's annual report on terrorism, released last month, lists both the leftist rebel groups and the rightist paramilitaries here as terrorist organizations - and hails Colombia as "a model of success in its counter-terrorism campaign."Skip to next paragraph
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By contrast, the State Department claims that next-door neighbor Venezuela is "unwilling or unable" to control traffic in arms, supplies, and drugs to the FARC and ELN - a designation that prompted Washington last week to announce a suspension of arms sales to Mr. Chávez.
Uribe, if he wins, would be the first Colombian president immediately elected to a second term after congress changed the constitution last year to allow him to run. Uribe has maintained popularity levels of near 70 percent throughout his first term. But the history of second- or third- term presidencies in Latin America offers a caution. Argentina's Carlos Menem similarly won congressional permission to run for a second term, and Peru's Alberto Fujimori dissolved congress in a "self-coup" to get his second term, and changed the constitution to get a third term. Both ultimately left office amid declining popularity and corruption allegations.
"A second administration will be very tough because Colombians' instincts are against excess of power," says Vargas Llosa. "They will be hard on Uribe."
Criticisms of Uribe center around accusations that the wealthy landowner, whose father was killed by the rebels in the early 1980s, maintains too-cozy ties with paramilitary leaders, protecting them from long jail sentences and extradition to the US, and that he has allowed his security forces to commit abuses. Uribe is also charged with ignoring grave social problems in a country where more than half of the 41 million population live in poverty.
But perhaps the most serious criticism of him is how - in the tradition of Latin American strongmen who trample the judicial and legislative branches - he handles criticism. "Uribe has an authoritarian streak ... and embodies a new kind of conservative populism," charges Bruce Bagley, a professor of international studies at the University of Miami in Florida.
"He is intolerant of criticism, especially by human rights organizations and NGOs. He runs his foreign policy out of the presidential palace ... and most important, he has made no effort to build an effective political party that would allow the country to continue to function democratically after he leaves office," says Mr. Bagley.
Carlos Gavira, a left-wing judge who is also running for president, and who was once Uribe's law professor at the University of Antioquia in Medellin, joked to the Associated Press this week that Uribe "was a good student, but he forgot to come to the class on constitutional law."
Uribe's recent tirades against journalists critical of him - which earned him reprimands from Human Rights Watch - and his refusal to participate in any presidential debates, have not helped this image. "He projects himself as a messiah, saying that only he can bring the country out of chaos," says Maria Jimena Duzan, a columnist at Colombia's most influential newspaper, El Tiempo. "He manages the country like it's his farm, and I am afraid this will get worse."
The Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA) party's Mr. Gavira, who opposes free trade agreements with the US, is second behind Uribe, with some 19 percent of the votes, according to last Friday's Napoleón Franco poll. Former minister Horacio Serpa of the Colombian Liberal Party (PLC) is behind with 13 percent.