Colombia’s pro-American president
Special to the Appeal
A pro-American president in Latin America? That may seem like an oxymoron in the wake of election victories by anti-American leftists in several countries in that part of the world but in the case of Colombia, it’s a fact.
Colombia’s U.S.-educated law-and-order president, Alvaro Uribe, easily won reelection to a second four-year term last Sunday by capturing more than 60 percent of the vote against two leftist opponents, thereby bucking electoral trends seen throughout the rest of South America in recent elections. Uribe won by cracking down hard on street crime in the cities and Marxist guerrillas in the countryside, and by presiding over a burgeoning free-market economy.
His reelection represents a major setback for his rabidly anti-American neighbor, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is Fidel Castro’s best friend in the hemisphere. Although the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela lean to the left, only Chavez and his Bolivian counterpart, coca farmer Evo Morales, parrot Castro’s stridently anti-American rhetoric. Just last week, Chavez accused President Bush and the U.S. of plotting against the governments of Bolivia and Venezuela. Fortunately for us, however, other Latin American presidents are far more moderate and pragmatic in their dealings with the Colossus of the North.
Uribe became the first incumbent to be reelected in Colombia in more than 100 years because of a constitutional amendment he pushed through Congress last year that permitted him to seek a second term. Colombian voters endorsed his crackdown on crime and terrorism, as evidenced by an 81 percent drop in political violence since the last national elections in 2002. Most Colombians credit Uribe for a dramatic drop in violent crime and a thriving economy.
“Uribe is a remarkable leader,” said Michael Shifter of the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Dialogue in a pre-election interview with the Christian Science Monitor. “He has an acute sense of what the people want, and … has made real progress on the security front.” Although armed clashes between Marxist rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups still kill thousands of Colombians each year, the country’s murder rate has fallen by 36 percent since Uribe took office and kidnappings dropped to 800 last year from a high of nearly 3,000 in 2002. Those are impressive statistics in a country with a long history of political violence.
When I served at the American Embassy in Bogota some 30 years ago, the Cali and Medellin drug cartels were in their infancy but they were already targeting their enemies in politics and in the media for assassination. During my 3-year tour of duty in that increasingly violent country, two of my good friends in the newspaper business were gunned-down in their offices in broad daylight.
According to the Boston Globe, “Uribe has earned the fervent loyalty of much of the upper class, the middle class and working classes by reducing violence, expanding health care and housing, and by achieving 5 percent annual (economic) growth and lower unemployment. In weekly town-hall meetings in neglected parts of the country he hears problems from common people previous leaders never visited.” As a result, the Globe added, three million people in remote rural areas gained public services such as electricity and potable drinking water for the first time last year.
Described as “intense and hard-driving,” the Harvard-educated Uribe doesn’t hesitate to call aides on their cell phones before dawn or on weekends when he needs help to answer constituents’ questions at a Sunday town hall meeting. Although the Globe said he “resembles a school principal in his tidy sweater vests and old-fashioned spectacles, he is as fiery as any Latin strongman,” having survived 13 assassination attempts. Perhaps that helps to explain why he was able to negotiate peace agreements with right-wing death squads, strengthen security forces in the strife-torn countryside and increase foreign investment five-fold during his first term in office.
Clearly, Uribe is Washington’s favorite Latin American president, and not only because he’s an American history “aficionado” who knows Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address by heart. President Bush calls Uribe “a strong and principled leader” and our government has poured $3 billion worth of foreign aid into that country since 2002, most in support of Plan Colombia, an aggressive bilateral anti-drug campaign. Uribe also wins good guy points in Washington for his willingness to extradite Colombian drug traffickers.
The State Department’s latest annual report on international terrorism hailed Colombia as “a model of success in its anti-terrorism campaign.” By contrast, the Department charged that neighboring Venezuela “is unwilling or unable” to control traffic in arms and drugs to Marxist guerrilla organizations, which led our government to cancel arms sales to that country last week.
Although critics say that Uribe is too close to his country’s right-wing militias, and human rights groups accuse him of negotiating a “sweetheart” peace deal with the militias, most Colombians support their law-and-order president. “He’s able to communicate with people showing he’s concerned about their situation,” said columnist/ political analyst Claudia Lopez. “One may not like him, but one must acknowledge that Uribe has completed what he promised to do.” That’s a lesson some American politicians should learn before we vote them out of office.
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a former U.S. diplomat who served at the American Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, during the period 1973-76.