Colombia's Uribe Seen as Solidifying Power

President ¿lvaro Uribe, a U.S. ally, is mulling a constitutional change that would allow him a third term.
President ¿lvaro Uribe, a U.S. ally, is mulling a constitutional change that would allow him a third term. (By Fernando Vergara -- Associated Press)

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By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 17, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia -- President ¿lvaro Uribe has overwhelming influence in many of this country's institutions and enjoys the support of 70 percent of his countrymen.

But lately, opposition leaders contend, the president has been showing little tolerance for critics at a time when his allies have accumulated broad power. Such concerns have grown as Uribe considers a constitutional change that would allow him to run for a third four-year term.

Last month, Uribe disparaged the Supreme Court just days after it launched an investigation of the president's cousin, former senator Mario Uribe, for alleged ties to paramilitary groups. Then, Uribe warned Bogota voters not to cast ballots for "mayors supported by the guerrillas," a reference to the leftist Democratic Pole party's candidate, Samuel Moreno.

Uribe has also accused Jos¿ Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch, of collaborating with rebels and has publicly derided two prominent journalists, causing one to go into exile after he received death threats.

In a sign of U.S. wariness over Uribe's sharp tongue, 11 Democratic senators, including Barack Obama (Ill.), Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), sent the president an unusually blunt letter this month saying they were concerned that his comments could put others in danger. Death squads and drug-trafficking groups have frequently killed rights workers, union activists and journalists, often after accusing them of belonging to the rebel groups at war with the state.

"While Colombian officials may view the situation differently, we caution against unfounded, personal attacks which could endanger people's safety or undermine the independence of the judiciary," said the letter, obtained by The Washington Post. "We believe strongly that civil society organizations have an essential role to play in strengthening democracy and human rights in every country."

Vice President Francisco Santos, in an interview, said the president has been defending himself against attacks he felt were unwarranted. "He's frank, and that's the person Colombians elected," Santos said. "We know where he stands. He's clear in his positions, doesn't hide what he thinks, and that's a virtue."

The largest recipient of U.S. aid outside the Middle East and Afghanistan, Uribe's government has sharply reduced violence, overseen an economic boom and aggressively attacked drug production. Washington has provided his administration with $4 billion in mostly military aid, and Uribe's performance has won deep admiration from Bush administration officials, who see the Colombian government as a bulwark against Venezuelan President Hugo Ch¿vez, a populist Washington opposes.

"The bravery of President Uribe is, I personally think, almost breathtaking given what he's accomplished here," John P. Walters, the White House drug policy chief, told reporters in Bogota this month.

Many Colombians feel the same, polls show. Political analysts say it's not just the results of Uribe's policies that appeal to his countrymen, but his image as a workaholic wonk coupled with his folksy, populist style -- on display in weekly town hall meetings where he scolds ministers and promises services to ordinary people.

Supporters in the president's governing coalition have proposed a referendum to permit Uribe to run for a third term, which would repeat a 2004 constitutional change that allowed him to run for a second term. Though the president deftly avoids questions about his political future, he frequently casts himself as the only man who can govern a complex country and hold back guerrillas.

This month, he ignited a controversy here after saying he would seek reelection if there were a "catastrophe" -- what his allies later defined as the failure of the president's governing coalition to decide on a single candidate for the 2010 presidential election.


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