Uribe is expected to win re-election in Colombia


ARBELAEZ, Colombia -- In this weekend getaway for the well-heeled residents of Bogota, President Alvaro Uribe has done nothing less than let people breathe the clean mountain air again.

Before Uribe took office in 2002, leftist guerrillas extorted businesses, bombed the local bank and brazenly shot those who resisted. Townspeople lived in fear, and Bogotanos had long stopped coming here to relax and spend money in local shops.

"They would call you up in the middle of the night, tell you how much money they wanted and where in the mountains you had to take it," hardware shop owner Alfonso Godoy said of the guerrillas' demands.

Four years later, the strengthened Colombian army and the Peasant Soldiers, a local security force formed by Uribe, have chased the rebels away from this scenic canyon 45 miles south of the capital. Peace, tourists and good economic times have returned.

"The atmosphere has changed. People are building houses, and there is work. It's because of improved security," said Luis Launde, 50, a laborer who was interviewed as he lounged in the town square.

As a reward for reducing violence and loosening the grip of rebel armies in dozens of Colombian towns like Arbelaez, Uribe is expected to easily win re-election in today's presidential election.

Despite concerns about authoritarianism, political scientist Fernando Cepeda said, the popularity of the blunt-spoken Uribe can be understood when his administration is compared with those of previous presidents who did little to stem the violence engendered by guerrilla armies and right-wing militias.

"Reducing violence is why he was elected, it's what he has delivered, and why he will probably win a first-round victory," said Cynthia Arnson, head of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Much of the funding for Uribe's security measures comes courtesy of the U.S. government, which since 2000 has budgeted $4 billion for Plan Colombia, an anti-drug and anti-terrorism program. If Uribe loses the election, that funding will be in serious jeopardy, congressional and U.S. military sources say.

But chances of a Uribe loss are remote.

The conservative leader needs a simple majority to avoid a runoff next month, and if polls are on target, he should garner 55 percent to 60 percent of the votes.

He might get as many as 30 percentage points more than his closest rival, leftist former Supreme Court Justice Carlos Gaviria of the Democratic Pole party. Uribe is running under the banner of a seven-party coalition.

The country still faces huge social and security problems. Education levels are low even for Latin America, and health care is abysmal, especially for the poor.

The drug trade seems as strong as ever, with recent coca cultivation surveys showing that the amount of acreage being farmed for cocaine production hasn't declined appreciably since Plan Colombia began.

But most Colombians will tell you that things were infinitely worse before Uribe took office. Most of the country's highways were too risky for travel, and rebels were tightening the noose around Bogota. Many feared the guerrillas might even launch an attack on the capital.

A little farther north of here, at a noisy roadside cafe in Granada called Arepazo, truck drivers recalled how they dared not drive the Cali-Bogota haul at night.

Rig owners regularly paid extortion sums, or "vaccinations," to fighters with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, and loads were commonly seized or burned.

"Things have changed enormously," said truck driver Jesus Forigua, who hauls cement from Cali to the capital.

He says now the road is guarded closely by security units and is virtually free of guerrilla interference. Uribe will get Forigua's vote Sunday and those of half a dozen other drivers interviewed there.

Not all Colombians are sold on Uribe or his methods, which some say are increasingly authoritarian. Many criticize him as arrogant for refusing to participate in a candidate debate this month, and less than half of Colombians support a free-trade agreement with the United States, which Uribe is pushing.

Critics say he favors the right-wing militias in the peace process, which has resulted in 30,000 paramilitary fighters giving up their arms, and say he merely has pushed the guerrillas out of the cities to more remote bases.

"The FARC has lost the strategic initiative, but its control over rural areas is largely unchanged," said Adam Isacson of the Washington-based Center for International Policy.

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