Colombia's folksy president

PEREIRA, Colombia — Rolling up his sleeves and reveling in the minutiae of coffee prices and road-paving projects, Alvaro Uribe seemed more like an alderman than Colombia’s president.

At a town hall meeting held in a high school gymnasium in Pereira, a provincial capital in the Andes Mountains, Uribe spent six hours trading stories, telling jokes and fielding requests for ambulances and clinics. He even delved into an obscure debate over where to build a sugar mill.

Uribe, a U.S-backed conservative, has held 234 town hall meetings since he was first elected in 2002. Broadcast on state television, the marathon sessions have helped burnish the president’s image as a hands-on leader.

But it’s more than Uribe’s regular-guy routine that makes him popular. His U.S.-funded army has delivered a series of blows to Marxist guerrillas, drug traffickers and kidnappers. Until the global recession kicked in, the improved security had sparked six straight years of economic growth.

Uribe’s triumphs have bred demands that he stay on the job for another four years, an outcome that seems increasingly likely.

By a lopsided 62-5 vote, the Colombian Senate last week approved a bill paving the way for a referendum to amend the constitution and allow Uribe to run for an unprecedented third term in the May 2010 election.

For his supporters, another four-year term for Uribe seems like a just reward. His successes on the battlefield and on the economic front have turned him into Colombia’s most popular leader in decades.

He also stands as Washington’s most loyal ally in Latin America and his administration has received more than $5 billion in mostly military aid from the United States.

After seven years in office, Uribe’s job-approval rating stands at 68 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll. And if Uribe is given the chance to run for a third term, several opinion surveys show him handily defeating any other candidate.

But like many South American nations with painful histories of abusive autocrats and military dictators, Colombia had long tried to limit presidential power. The 1991 constitution banned re-election.

More recently, however, a new crop of seemingly successful democratically elected leaders in the region have convinced lawmakers to change the rules to allow presidential re-election.

Argentina’s Carlos Menem, Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa have all been elected to multiple terms.

Uribe was allowed to run for a second term in 2006 after lawmakers amended the constitution in a controversial move that led to accusations of vote-buying.

But critics contend that another four years in office would stain Uribe’s impressive legacy. They are already painting him as a conservative counterpart to the left-wing Chavez, who was first elected in 1998 and has vowed to rule until 2021.

Others see parallels with Fujimori, who defeated his country’s Shining Path guerrillas and used his popularity to gain a third presidential term in 2000. But Fijimori quickly fell from grace and was forced to resign. Last month, a Peruvian court convicted him of mass murder and kidnapping and sentenced him to 25 years in prison.

The Uribe administration is already showing troubling signs of decay.

The DAS, Colombia’s version of the FBI, stands accused of spying on political opponents and passing the information to Uribe’s top aides.

Dozens of pro-Uribe lawmakers have been imprisoned or forced to resign for collaborating with right-wing death squads. As a result, nearly one-third of the senators voting in favor of the referendum on Tuesday were unelected alternates standing in for their disgraced colleagues.

The president’s two sons, in turn, have come under fire for allegedly using government connections to close a lucrative land deal. Even the army has been shaken by accusations that soldiers killed as many as 1,600 civilians and dressed them up as guerrillas to run-up the bodycount and earn cash bonuses.

“Uribe already has too much power. He controls the legislature. He has growing influence on the judiciary,” said Daniel Coronell, a columnist and TV journalist. “A third term for Uribe would be dangerous for Colombian democracy.”

Several roadblocks remain on Uribe’s path to a third term.

Colombia’s House and Senate must reconcile different versions of the re-election bill which then must pass muster by the Constitutional Court. The issue would then be put before the voters near the end of the year.

At least one-quarter of the electorate — about 7 million voters — would need to cast ballots for the result to be valid. If the “yes” votes on amending the Constitution outnumber the “no” votes by any margin, the referendum would pass.

Uribe himself has been strangely silent about his plans. While allowing his supporters to push ahead with the referendum drive, Uribe has refused to clarify whether he will seek a third term.

Some analysts believe that he is being intentionally vague to avoid becoming a lame-duck leader. But his dithering has paralyzed the campaigns of several pro-government candidates who would like to succeed Uribe.

Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos announced last week that he will step down at the end of the month for a possible presidential run. But polls show that in a contest against Uribe, Santos would lose. Thus, he said he would only run if Uribe stands aside.

“If the president is a candidate he can count on my total support,” Santos said.

If elected, Santos and several other presidential candidates have pledged to continue with Uribe’s national security policies. But at the town hall meeting in Pereira, several members of the audience said they would prefer to stick with Uribe himself.

Fernando Castro, a medical doctor, said he feared that without Uribe the guerrillas would return to terrorize the countryside. In 1991, Castro was injured in a botched kidnapping attempt by Marxist rebels. The attack left him partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair.

“What happened to me happened to many Colombians,” Castro said. “But Uribe has taken on the narcos and the bandits and we’ve been able to return to our land. If you ask me who I’m voting for, I will tell you: Uribe, of course!”

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