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Colombia election ends reign of 'savior' Álvaro Uribe

Álvaro Uribe brought security to a nation that once inspired Hollywood drug-trafficking film 'Clear and Present Danger.' But his scandals could sink would-be successor Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia's May 30 presidential vote.

By Staff writer / May 28, 2010

Colombia President Álvaro Uribe greeted crowds during a police academy ceremony in early May. After the president’s bid for a third term was struck down by Colombian courts, attention turned to his former defense minister.

William Fernando Martinez/AP


Bogotá, Colombia

A few months prior to Colombia's May 30 presidential vote, there was a distinct possibility that President Álvaro Uribe – the no-nonsense leader synonymous with fighting drug traffickers and terrorism – would be at his country's helm for another four years.

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When Colombian courts struck down his bid for a third term, it still seemed that his free-market, tough-on-guerrillas policies would live robustly on with his former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, who was well ahead in polls.

But suddenly, the race is neck and neck. Antanas Mockus, a mathematician and former mayor of Bogotá, has surged in the polls (see related article). And whoever wins could shape the perceptions of the legacy of Mr. Uribe, who is widely credited with wresting control from leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries and giving many Colombians the sense of "normalcy" that they savor today.

Uribe remains wildly popular, with 70 percent approval ratings. And in some ways, the surge of Mr. Mockus shows Uribe's success in the area most important to voters: democratic security. No matter who wins, the next Colombian president is likely to chart the same course when it comes to drug traffickers, rebels, and paramilitaries.

"He achieved a consensus on public opinion about security as a vital element in society," says Rafael Nieto, a political analyst who served with Uribe as vice minister of justice. "Today there is no one not willing to continue his policies."

But many Colombians say they are fatigued with Uribe's administration, particularly by the political and human rights scandals that have dogged his presidency. In that sense, Santos seems to be more of the same. In Mockus, they say, they expect more transparency and rule of law. A Mockus victory, however, could highlight the flaws in Uribe's time in office, undermining the image of a man who, until recently, was seen by many as the only viable way forward for the country.

Uribe's crime-fighting legacy

Colombia was a very different place when Uribe, a lawyer and former governor of Antioquia, first won the presidency in 2002.

Amid mortar attacks in the center of Bogotá, Uribe began his term and vowed he would never negotiate with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), after peace talks with the previous government collapsed.

While guerrillas still pose a threat, and criminal violence is way up in some urban centers such as Medellín, overall kidnappings are down by nearly 90 percent. A place that once starred in Hollywood films about jungle violence (such as "Proof of Life," and "Clear and Present Danger") is now touted as a hot spot on the Latin America tourism circuit.

A staunch ally of former President George W. Bush, Uribe benefited widely from the $6 billion, US-funded Plan Colombia, designed to reduce the drug trade. Uribe expanded state presence throughout the country, diminishing the sway of leftist guerrillas and persuading paramilitaries to demobilize.

The erosion of the 'teflon effect' enjoyed by Colombia's president – political and human rights scandals were long ignored as he developed 'savior' status – reflects a rising call for transparency and perhaps a shift away from Latin America's strongman tradition.