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Rebels in disguise?

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — A Brazilian presidential contender has borrowed a page from Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s hard-line playbook.

Locked in a tight race heading into the October presidential election, opposition candidate José Serra is claiming that the Workers Party, which has governed Brazil for the past eight years, has ties to Colombia’s FARC guerrillas.

“The whole world knows about the links between the Workers Party and the FARC,” Serra told Brazilian reporters.

Workers Party presidential candidate Dilma Rousseff — who was tortured by government agents for her militant left-wing activities in the 1970s — said Serra’s comments marked a new low in the campaign and claimed they were a sign of desperation.

But smear tactics often work.

In Colombia, Uribe spent much of the past eight years insinuating that his left-wing critics had ties to the FARC, the country’s most powerful guerrilla group. And in a few cases, Uribe, who leaves office next month, had a point.

But far too often, it was simply a way to divert attention from scandals in his own government — like a plot to spy on the domestic opposition and the killing of innocent civilians by army troops who later dressed their victims in rebel uniforms. When human rights activists and NGOs called attention to these and other problems, Uribe often accused them of being dupes and accomplices of the FARC.

In last month’s presidential campaign, Uribe spoke again of the red menace by warning voters that opposition candidate Antanas Mockus would be soft on the guerrillas. Mockus lost by a landslide to Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s former defense minister.

Colombians are especially sensitive to accusations of insurgent activity because the country remains embroiled in a 46-year-old guerrilla war. But Brazil’s rebel groups petered out decades ago.

True, the Workers Party was founded at a meeting of the Sao Paulo Forum, an organization that has often been sympathetic to the FARC and other rebel groups. But the party has moved to the right under its leader, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who remains hugely popular after eight years in office.

Now a firm member of the establishment, Rousseff served as Lula’s energy minister and chief of staff. For awhile, she held a big lead over Serra, a conservative former governor of Sao Paulo state. But the latest poll shows the two candidates in a dead heat.

Although neither candidate is likely to diverge very much from Lula’s middle-of-the-road policies that have sparked an economic boom, Serra seems to be betting that his Swiftboat tactics will help get him over the hump.