Colombian president seeks peace by stepping up war on rebels

Monday, August 5, 2002

BOGOTA, Colombia -- As a Harvard man who wears gray suits and comes across as a policy wonk, Alvaro Uribe might seem an odd choice for a wartime president.

But after 38 years of increasingly bloody civil war, Colombians appear eager to follow their new leader into the intensified battle he has promised to wage against the country's rebels.

Uribe, who takes office Wednesday, speaks equally enthusiastically of education and pension reform. But it's his message of war that resonates here -- his conviction that with determination and a strengthened military this diminutive 50-year-old Colombian can hammer the rebels into making peace on his terms.

Rash of kidnappings

Some 3,500 people die every year in the war. Hundreds of others are kidnapped by the rebels. Uribe's own father was killed in a kidnapping attempt in 1983 at the family ranch.

He insists his crusade isn't personal, and not directed only at the left-wing rebels but the right-wing paramilitaries, as well as the drug traffickers that finance both.

But some doubt his resolve when it comes to the illegal paramilitaries.

Arturo Carrillo, a law professor at Columbia University in New York and a critic of Uribe, worries about the new president's past as governor of Antioquia state, during a period when the paramilitaries consolidated their power. Carrillo thinks that even if Uribe does indeed take on all the illegal groups, human rights will suffer.

"The human rights situation in Colombia has always been tied to the conflict," he said in a telephone interview.

"The more conflict, the more human rights violations, and all sides are pretty much vowed to escalate the conflict now."

But many Colombians say they're ready to accept the risks of escalation.

"We've tried negotiating with the rebels but nothing happened," said Juan Manuel Rios, a taxi driver. "It's time for war. Uribe is our last hope to save Colombia."

In the May election, his slogan was "mano firme, corazon grande" -- firm hand, big heart. He promised "a firm hand against the violence, the dirty politics and the corruption (and) a big heart to do away with misery and build social justice." It put him 20 percentage points ahead of his nearest contender, despite running as an independent against Colombia's party machines.

Uribe has laid out ambitious plans to increase the size of the U.S.-backed military, reform congress, clean up official corruption and streamline the national bureaucracy.

He also has plans to improve schools, roads and health care and provide loans to small businesses. He wants to train farmers now growing drug crops to replant the jungle and become park rangers.

Studious, almost pedantic, Uribe is strikingly different from outgoing president Andres Pastrana, a former TV reporter who was ever striving to be diplomatic and build consensus, always with an eye to public relations. Uribe is expected to largely ignore the press, as well as the nation's traditional power brokers.

"Uribe is the anti-Pastrana, in the way he dresses, in the way he talks, in the hours he works," said Fernando Cepeda, a conservative political analyst and Uribe supporter. "He doesn't know what public relations are. He works 24 hours a day. He doesn't go out to dinner at nice restaurants."

Cepeda figures that image will serve him well, at least initially.

"I think that image of dedication, seriousness, austerity will give Uribe a blank check with the country for a while," he said.

Pastrana spent three years in fruitless negotiation with the rebels. Now expectations of Uribe's promised change of approach are high and he will have to show results quickly, a difficult task in a long-running guerrilla war, Cepeda said.

Uribe has never promised to end the war on the battlefield. But even his critics think he will change its dynamics. "If Uribe is going to contribute in any way, it will be in changing, for better or worse, the balance of powers among the different actors and setting the groundwork for new negotiations," Carrillo said. "But the parties are farther apart than they have been in the last 20 years. There's no middle ground."

A lawyer with degrees from Harvard and Oxford, Uribe has worked in government since he was 26. He served two terms in the Senate, from 1986 to 1994, was mayor of his native Medellin in 1992, and director of Colombia's civil aviation authority from 1980 to 1982.

His term in Medellin coincided with the reign of drug king Pablo Escobar, and Uribe has been dogged by allegations he was tied to drug traffickers. He denies it, saying his family's ties to the Ochoa family, many of whom were important lieutenants in Escobar's Medellin Cartel, are based on a love of expensive horses, not drug running.

As governor of violence-ravaged Antioquia state from 1995 to 1997, Uribe was a frequent critic of leftist rebels. Known as a hard-liner who dramatically reduced crime, he also championed citizen observer patrols that were ultimately disbanded because some of the groups developed ties to the paramilitaries.

As president, he plans to create similar patrols, initially equipping a million civilians with radios so they can report on suspicious activity in their neighborhoods.

In Antioquia, he was also known as a solid administrator who cut bureaucracy while improving education and health care.

Not beholden to any traditional power blocs and vested interests, he has been able to stack his administration with technocrats like himself. But he has been a bit vague on how to pay for the military buildup and new social programs. He says cleaning up corruption and government waste will yield huge benefits and he is considering making businesses buy war bonds.

The business community, desperate to see Colombia peaceful and safe, appears ready to absorb the cost.

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