Hugo Chavez looms large over Colombia election

As voters line up for today's Colombia election, many will cast their ballots based on how the candidates will handle strained relations with neighboring Venezuela and its fiery leftist leader, Hugo Chavez.

Ariana Cubillos/AP
A worker organizes electoral material at a polling station in Bogota, Saturday. Colombia will hold presidential elections on Sunday.

Try as candidates might to keep Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his politics out of their domestic elections, he always seems to be a factor in voters' minds across Latin America. Today's Colombia election is no different.

In presidential elections Sunday, some Colombians say they are voting for Juan Manuel Santos, the former defense minister and ally of outgoing conservative President Alvaro Uribe - Mr. Chavez's No. 1 foe in the region - because they say if Mr. Santos wins, he will stand tough against what they see as Chavez's aggressions.

Others want Green party candidate Antanas Mockus to win because they fear a Santos victory will heighten tensions between Colombia and Venezuela.

But the outcome of the race, which polls indicate will most likely go into runoff between Mr. Mockus and Santos, will not have foreign policy implications for neighboring Venezuela alone.

Both candidates are promising to stand tough against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and carry on with the free trade principles espoused by President Uribe. But as Santos represents continuity with Uribe, he comes with the baggage that the president has amassed, making foes of both Chavez and his allies in the region, as well as Democrats in the US. A Mockus victory, meanwhile, might worry conservatives in Washington, but it could go a long way toward healing greater divisions in Latin America.

“I think that Mockus has a goal, and it’s to return Colombia to Latin America,” says Laura Gil, a columnist and political analyst in Bogota. With Chavez, she says, “the geopolitical facts remain. No one is going to change Chavez’s mind. … But it could mean a gentler relationship with Mockus, one that is not that costly.”

Staunch US ally

Under Uribe, a right-wing president in a continent where the left has dominated over the past decade, Colombia became a staunch ally of the US, which lent it $6 billion in anti-narcotics aid and helped Uribe fight back guerrillas. He is widely popular within Colombia.

But outside his own country, his policies have angered neighbors. Colombia faced tough questions after it announced cooperation with a US plan to increase its access to military bases in the country. Chavez suggested the idea was a step toward war.

Tensions also flared after Colombia raided a FARC guerilla camp in Ecuador in 2008, killing Raul Reyes, the second in command. Some observers worried about an armed conflict along the Venezuelan-Colombian border, especially as Chavez sent in tanks. Ecuador and Venezuela quickly cut off diplomatic ties with Colombia. “That was a huge, huge victory for Uribe,” says Myles Frechette, the former US ambassador to Colombia. “But it unleashed a tremendous negative reaction from Ecuador and Venezuela.”

Chavez has already curbed trade with Colombia, and says that if Santos wins he could implement a full-on embargo. With Santos, who was defense minister at the time of the Ecuador raid, Chavez says relations will surely worsen.

Chavez meddling

Many Colombians resent Chavez meddling in their domestic affairs, and are backing Santos because, among other things, they perceive Chavez will have less of a say under Santos. “You have to treat Chavez with a firm fist,” says Cesar Cardozo, a resident of Bogota. “Mockus is more a person of dialogue, and we cannot let a man as sarcastic as Chavez butt into our business in Colombia.”

But others say they fear tensions will rise if Santos and Chavez face off. In Medellin, that is why Edgar Arias Gomez says he is casting his vote for Mockus. “I think the situation is violent enough,” he says. “Things will be calmer with Mockus.”

Outside Latin America, Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, says that as Uribe's defense minister, Santos will have a harder time overcoming the distrust that accumulated towards Uribe during his eight years in office, particularly over political scandals and accusations of human rights violations.

And while Uribe had many friends in Washington – first and foremost former President George W. Bush – he did anger US Democrats who were opposed to the free trade deal between Colombia and the US.

“Mockus would benefit from a clean slate… Uribe has presented a lot of problems,” says Mr. Shifter, listing the scandals that have marred the Uribe administration. “If Santos wins, even if he has no responsibility, he’s not going to be able to free himself of those.”

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