Pubdate: Sat, 12 May 2001
Source: Associated Press (Wire)
Copyright: 2001 Associated Press
Author: Jared Kotler, The Associated Press


BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- In a country fed up with rebel violence and
skeptical of peace talks, a hard-line politician is riding a tide of
public anger that could carry him into Colombia's presidency.

While some label Alvaro Uribe a right-wing extremist, a growing number
of Colombians want get-tough policies and see him as their savior.
With campaigning already in high gear, his stances on negotiating
peace with guerrillas have electrified Colombia's presidential race a
full year before the first round of voting.

With his wire-rimmed glasses and dull gray business suits -- along
with a resume that boasts graduate work at Harvard and Oxford -- the
48-year-old former governor hardly looks the part of an extremist.

But his upstart candidacy is stirring strong emotions and illustrating
what some call a rightward shift in Colombia's historically centrist
politics. Voters are frustrated that President Andres Pastrana's
concessions to the rebels in return for talks have so far failed to
stop the violence.

Uribe's own father was assassinated by guerrillas, and his rise comes
as outlaw paramilitary groups expand a massacre campaign against
suspected leftists in the countryside and congress debates "war
legislation" to give the military broad powers to detain suspected

Critics cast Uribe as an extremist who would plunge the South American
country into wider bloodshed and chip away at its democratic
traditions. The rebels have called him the candidate of war."

However, supporters see in Uribe an experienced and decisive leader --
perhaps the only man capable of bringing order to the chaos of an
escalating 37-year civil war.

"I'm going to vote for Alvaro Uribe and so are 99 percent of the
people who come into my store," said Fabio Delgado, the owner of a
convenience store in an upscale Bogota neighborhood. "This country
needs discipline, it needs a strong hand."

The latest Gallup poll, taken in March, gave Uribe 25 percent of the
vote, up from just 5 percent in August. The telephone poll of major
cities had a 3 percent error margin.

Should Uribe's support continue to grow, analysts say he might muscle
his way into a second-round runoff even though he lacks the support of
Colombia's two main parties.

The leading contenders in the race are Noemi Sanin of the Yes Colombia
Party, and Horacio Serpa of the Liberal Party. The incumbent,
Pastrana, cannot run for re-election because Colombian law limits
presidents to a single four-year term.

Interviewed Friday during a campaign stop at a Bogota university,
Uribe shrugged off his ultraconservative reputation while hitting the
law-and-order themes that have earned him support.

Calling himself "a democrat with authority," Uribe told The Associated
Press he would strengthen Colombia's U.S-backed military and also
demand that guerrillas agree to a cease-fire and permit U.N. observers
before he would continue the two-year-old peace process.

Uribe also backed growing U.S. military aid to fight drugs and
criticized Pastrana's peace policies -- the strategy pollsters say is
the key to his success.

He said Pastrana created a "paradise for criminals" when he ceded a
Switzerland-sized southern territory at the outset of the talks to the
country's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, or FARC.

Negotiations with the group have borne little fruit. The rebels are
accused of using their sanctuary to train fighters, move arms and
drugs and harbor kidnap victims.

Uribe also defended his controversial term as governor of western
Antioquia State from 1995-1997. From the state house in Medellin,
Uribe encouraged the formation of village and neighborhood watch
groups -- some of whom, human rights groups charge, evolved into
abusive right-wing paramilitary militias.

Uribe says the program was legal and succeeded at cutting crime. If
elected, he said he would put 100,000 more police on the streets get
citizens to "cooperate" more with the security forces.

Associates say Uribe's hard-line image has overshadowed more moderate
positions on social issues picked up as a maverick member of the
social-democratic Liberal Party.

Addressing a packed auditorium at the El Rosario University, the
candidate wielded a laser pointer and spoke on topics from global
warming to rural irrigation. But his success may ultimately hinge on
whether there is more war or peace.

"If the peace process succeeds, Alvaro Uribe has little hope of
becoming president," said Hernan de la Cuesta, Gallup's director in
Colombia. "But if the process continues to falter, his chances look
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager