Monday, May 29, 2006

In a safer Colombia, president wins landslide re-election

International Herald Tribune

Bogota, Columbia - President Álvaro Uribe, considered by the Bush administration to be an unswerving caretaker for Washington's drug war in Latin America, has been re-elected in a landslide to a second four-year term.
Colombians gave Uribe 62 percent of the vote Sunday, with nearly all of the votes counted. Voters were apparently satisfied that Uribe had made headway during his first term in wresting control of this country from Marxist rebels and drug traffickers. Uribe overwhelmed the second-place finisher, Carlos Gaviria, a left-of-center former Constitutional Court justice who received 22 percent of the vote, and Horacio Serpa, the Liberal Party's standard-bearer, who garnered less than 12 percent.
"The victory by President Uribe will permit the young people of Colombia to learn about the conflict from the history books - not like us who have had to live with it," said Martha Lucía Ramirez, a former defense minister under Uribe.
Buttressed with more than $3 billion from the United States, most of it military aid, Uribe has aggressively fought Latin America's most persistent leftist insurgency while cooperating closely with an ambitious U.S. program intended to eradicate drug crops through aerial spraying.
He has also supported U.S. trade initiatives, signing a free-trade treaty with the Bush administration that, if approved by lawmakers here and in Washington, would become the second-largest trade pact signed by the United States with a Latin American country. In a region where the Bush administration is unpopular, Uribe also represents a trusted counterweight to rising leftist populism, particularly in neighboring Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez is relentlessly challenging American policy.
Uribe's most important accomplishments have been in security. The army, with 100,000 more troops than it had four years ago - close to a one-third increase - has taken back towns and roads once under the control of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the largest rebel group. When Uribe took office, nearly one-fifth of Colombia's towns had no police or army and kidnappings were out of control.
The rebels often had control of communities like the farming village of Choachi, an hour's drive over rugged mountains from Bogotá's presidential palace. Farmers in wool ponchos and faded fedoras and their wives came down from the hills Sunday and stood in long lines to cast their ballots. Several said they were weary of the earlier violence.
Moments after casting his vote in a school here, Arturo Hoyos, a farmer, simply explained: "There has been peace with this president."
Uribe, though, faces difficult challenges, which some political analysts say will be particularly thorny because of bungling by his own government.
Rightist paramilitary groups, anti- guerrilla forces that were given generous concessions to demobilize fighters, are evolving into drug-trafficking cartels that control politicians and extortion rackets across the northern coast. The government has also been plagued by accusations that important agencies, like the intelligence service, have closely collaborated with the paramilitaries.
Though his popularity ratings have been among the highest of any Latin American leader - often hovering above 70 percent - Uribe leads a loose coalition of movements that could splinter.
"The challenges will not be few," Colombia's leading newspaper, El Tiempo, said in an editorial Sunday.

By Juan Forero


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