Colombian leader has strong grip - and yen for yoga

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.

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.

Uribe's approval ratings continue to hover around the 63 percent mark - among the highest of any Latin American president. In Congress, a serious movement is under way to alter Colombia's constitution so that Uribe can seek a second four-year term.

And while other South American leaders struggle against powerful internal opposition, Colombia's president has earned praise from his rivals.

Daniel Garcia Peña, the leader of a reformist peace group and member of the political opposition, says Uribe has followed through on his campaign promises.

"Uribe really believes in what he's doing," says Mr. Peña, who worked with the President when he was governor of the Antioquia region.

"He doesn't look at the polls to see whether he should smile or frown today. He is a believer. In a country like ours, he has become a savior."

The government's plan to regain state territory lost for decades to illegal armed forces is moving forward. Of 178 municipalities that never before had police forces, 79 now do. Officers are expected to reach the others by September.

Uribe has enlisted 15,000 "peasant soldiers" to protect their rural hometowns in areas where no Army unit is permanently stationed.

And, two new High Mountain Battalions have been formed to attack the FARC in the mountains where they live.

Just last month, the government's peace minister announced a formal agreement to demobilize the paramilitary forces by the end of 2005.

Meanwhile, in the international arena, the Colombian president has crowned himself the United States's staunchest ally in Latin America. Only he and embattledBolivian president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada supported the war in Iraq.

Uribe has secured international condemnation of the FARC, and allowed the US to fumigate coca crops, which UN figures indicate have declined by 30 percent in 2002.

Among the Colombian people, Uribe is known for an unrelenting work ethic, sparse sleep habits, and his practice of "yoganidra" - a profound meditation.

For 39 years, Hector Vega and his father, José Ramon, have owned the oldest yoga school here in the capital. But they have struggled to convince the predominantly Catholic residents that yoga isn't blasphemous.

Most thought "yoga was of the devil," says Mr. Vega.

In just one year, however, the president has managed to make his personal penchant for the Far Eastern practice a national fad.

"People come to yoga schools more than before," Vega says. Enrollment at their school is up 30 percent since Uribe took office.

"I don't agree with [his politics]," quips Vega. "But I am very thankful to Uribe because he has increased my business."

Whether Uribe's landmark political referendum can sweep the nation as his exercise habits have will soon be put to the test.

The 15-point economic and fiscal reform program on which he campaigned will hit the ballot box Oct. 25. It needs six million votes, or 25 percent of the electorate, to be approved.

The Constitutional Court struck down the referendum's most controversial provisions - such as harsher punishment for drug users. Now, it is a bland hodgepodge that includes items like making congressional votes public.

Polls show that only 40 percent of Colombians plan to vote. But observers believe that with Uribe as campaigner-in-chief, the referendum can't miss.

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