Washington's Best Friend in Latin America

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On a continent that seems to present Washington with a new leftist, anti-American government practically every few months, Colombia has become a rare dependable ally. And as the war-torn country goes to the polls Sunday, Colombians seem content to stay right where they are. According to most polls, voters are likely to hand conservative President Alvaro Uribe a new mandate to continue his security-minded policies that have brought some measure of stability.

Under Uribe, many Colombians feel safer today than they have in decades. Once one of the most violent countries in the world, plagued by a four-decade-old civil war pitting leftist rebels against government forces and right-wing paramilitary groups, Colombia has seen the number of kidnappings and murders plunge, as the economy has surged.

The U.S. has invested a great deal of money in Uribe, bankrolling his fight against the booming drug trade that funds Colombia's civil war. Even so, violence does still rage in large parts of the countryside, where the government has little effective control. And critics say that in the zeal to crack down on guerrillas, many innocent civilians have been falsely jailed.

Despite a promise not to sabotage the presidential elections, the country's most powerful rebel group, known as the FARC, have made their presence felt in the run-up to the vote. Rebels have blockaded highways with burnt-out buses, bombed an oil pipeline and cut power to the country's most important port city. They are urging voters to cast their ballots for the candidate who has the most "coherent proposal for peace," implying anyone but the hardline Uribe.

For the fervent supporters of the firm-fisted leader, the bombs are all the proof they need that they have to give Uribe more time to consolidate the gains he has achieved in his first term. But critics say that the rebel actions show that the president's "democratic security" policy isn't working. His leading opponent, former magistrate Carlos Gaviria, the candidate for the left-leaning Polo Democratico Alternativo party, has run on a platform criticizing what he calls Uribe's authoritarian tendencies and his neo-liberal economic policies. That message has resounded with a surprisingly growing number of Colombians; from single digits just a few months ago, the leftist candidate has risen in the polls to nearly 20%.

But no amount of criticism by the opposition (including the Liberal Party candidate Horacio Serpa), policy setbacks or even corruption scandals that have tainted his administration appear to have seriously damaged Uribe's mass appeal. "Nothing seems to affect his popularity, neither the good nor the bad," said political analyst Fernando Cepeda. "What determines his popularity is the overriding perception that he is a man who kills himself working and he's doing the best he can."

The "best" in a country with Colombia's tortured history, however, is all relative. Under Uribe's tenure more than 30,000 rightist paramilitaries have been demobilized as part of an initiative that grants reduced sentences to militia members responsible for some of Colombia's most brutal crimes. But human rights groups, and even some of Uribe's supporters, have criticized the peace offer as too lenient, though Uribe has said he is willing to give the same treatment to the country's two leftist rebel groups.

The smaller ELN rebel group is in preliminary peace talks with the government, but the FARC have refused to negotiate with Uribe, calling his government "illegitimate and fascist." Most recently, they rejected his overture for talks on an exchange of jailed rebels for dozens of high-profile hostages being held in rebel jungle camps. Perhaps they know that it's never good to sit down at the bargaining table with someone, like Uribe, who is negotiating from such a position of strength.