Colombia Bucking Anti-US Mood in South America

By Howard Williams | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

{/fcharset0 Times; ( - Anti-U.S. sentiment in South America may be expanding rapidly, but apparently not in Colombia where polls ahead of Sunday's presidential election show that incumbent Alvaro Uribe is headed for a landslide, which would allow him to win without a run-off.

Uribe, who needs 50 percent plus one vote to avoid the second stage of the election, is a strong ally of President George W. Bush.

He is also riding a tide of popularity for his sometimes controversial, but largely successful, crackdown on left-wing militia groups and drug barons. His critics complain, however, that he has done this by turning a blind eye to some of the violent actions by right-wing groups.

A week from Sunday, Peruvians will go the polls in the second (and final round) of their presidential elections. Anti-U.S. nationalist Ollanta Humala -- once the front-runner, is now believed to be well behind former socialist president Alan Garcia.

Garcia came in second to Humala in the first round with opinion polls suggesting at the time that the former president did not stand much of a chance. But the tide has turned dramatically against Humala, despite public declarations of support from Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales.

Uribe's victory in Colombia would be the sweeter one for Washington.

Uribe angered Chavez earlier this year by signing a free trade pact with the United States, prompting Chavez to take Venezuela out of a regional trade pact that included Colombia.

While opinion polls in virtually every South and Central American country -- including Colombia -- show that the majority of voters oppose such a free trade agreement, Uribe has won the hearts and souls of his electorate on a simple law-and-order program.

That was what won him his first election in 2002 and seems certain to keep him in power for another four years following Sunday's vote.

In 2002, Uribe promised "a firm hand" in fighting crime and a left wing guerilla insurgency. Since then, he has strengthened the armed forces and police by nearly a third; while the headlines show that Colombia still suffers from one of the highest rates of murder and kidnapping, both figures are much lower than in the past and Uribe's get-tough policies get the credit. Homicides are now at their lowest rate in nearly 20 years, while kidnappings have reportedly dropped by nearly 75 percent.

Sick of the drug cartels and "The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia," or FARC, Colombia's middle classes have turned to Uribe as their only viable savior. Uribe's father was murdered by the left-wing FARC when it tried to kidnap him in 1983.

Tulio Chinchilla, a law professor at the University of Medellin and a former presidential adviser, explained his theory about Uribe's success: "The secret to Uribe's popularity is that he thinks and feels like your average Colombian and people can sense that," Chinchilla said.

This warmth extends to the White House.

Uribe is one of a relatively small number of foreign leaders invited by President Bush to his Texas ranch. Greeting him at the ranch last year, Bush declared that "President Uribe is a strong and principled leader. I admire his determination."

Apart from withdrawing from a regional trade group because of Uribe's closed ties with Washington, Venezuela's Chavez has remained mostly quiet on the Colombian election, realizing that Uribe has no competition from within Colombia.

Chavez has, however, been vocal in supporting Humala in Peru. But, domestically, this appears only to have helped rival Alan Garcia and maybe even pushed Garcia closer to Washington.

At one stage in the Peruvian election campaign, Garcia indicated that he wanted to rip up the free trade agreement with the U.S., ratified just last month. But while Humala is still proclaiming that he too would rip up the agreement if elected, Garcia has let the issue drop off his radar.

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