The reelection of Colombia's president this week defies a Latin American trend toward leaders who promise to help the little guy, but don't. Alvaro Uribe, a blunt US-trained lawyer, won 62.2 percent of the vote after making people feel safer and richer.
With nearly $3 billion in military aid from the US, Colombia's government has largely outsmarted right-wing militias and leftist rebels who have kept the Andean-Amazon nation in a civil war for more than four decades. Mr. Uribe is well along in demobilizing 30,000 paramilitary fighters and has kept the 17,000-strong guerrilla force known as FARC on the defensive, both politically and militarily.
And since Uribe deployed more troops and police in villages and towns, Colombia's 41 million people have enjoyed renewed security, unlike four years ago when he first won office. They gladly came out to vote for him. (The closest contender, a leftist senator, won only 22 percent, while Colombia's two traditional liberal and conservative parties have been marginalized by Uribe's loose political coalition.)
He's also reduced crime. Homicides, kidnappings, and terrorism have sharply dropped. People now feel safer offering information to authorities about the activities of FARC. "Democratic security has started to regain the liberties that terrorism had taken from us," Uribe told voters.
Such success stands in contrast to the would-be leader of Latin America, President Hugo Chávez, who, despite his populist rhetoric, has yet to turn Venezuela's oil riches into making his country safer and more prosperous.
Colombia's economy grew about 5 percent last year, while Venezuela's economy has fallen more than 10 percent since Mr. Chávez took power in 1999. And there's little chance Chávez will leave office after his term expires.
Uribe also embraces open trade, unlike some newly elected leftist leaders, such as Bolivia's Evo Morales who prefers nationalizing foreign firms. Colombia's leader has signed a free-trade agreement with President Bush - a pact the US Congress should approve in order to help turn Colombia into a strategic ally in the region.
The vote of confidence for Uribe was in large part an endorsement of his implementation of Plan Colombia, an initiative set up by a previous government and the Clinton administration six years ago to repulse the insurgency, reduce drug production, and tackle rural poverty. Dealing with the militias and rebels has taken top priority, and Uribe now needs to do more in eradicating cocaine and heroin growing, both for Colombia's sake and that of the US.
He also must improve social programs and implement land reform to reduce Colombia's extreme disparity of wealth. About half of the population lives in poverty, and some 2 million remain displaced from the war.
The US has invested heavily in Colombia, mainly to slow the flow of drug exports. It needs to see better results, not only for itself, but because the illegal drug trade also fuels a leftist insurgency that has kept Colombians in poverty and fomented human rights violations. But momentum toward the goals of Plan Colombia is strong, and both the US and Colombians can achieve more during Uribe's next four-year term.