The Miami Herald
Mar. 11, 2002

Colombians vote for new Congress

                      BY FRANCES ROBLES

                      BOGOTA, Colombia - A cluster of candidates vying in Sunday's elections to represent Huila province in
                      Colombia's lower house of Congress had two things in common.

                      They are kidnapped.

                      They lost.

                      Colombian voters largely rejected the notion of putting captive candidates in Congress, returns showed with 90
                      percent of the vote counted. A few of the thousands of aspirants for more than 250 open seats in Colombia's
                      congress have been kidnapped by leftist rebels. Many of their families launched vigorous campaigns in their

                      In Huila, where four seats were up for grabs, four of the 26 candidates are captives. But the returns also showed
                      while the absent candidates may not have succeeded in capturing office, they fared better than dozens of other
                      office-seekers in the same race.

                      ''I thought it was important that my husband win in the name of freedom and democracy,'' said Deyanira Ortíz,
                      whose husband, Orlando Beltrán Cuéllar, was in sixth place to represent Huila. He was kidnapped in August. ``A
                      lot of the families of kidnap victims didn't have money to launch campaigns. All we had was effort.''

                      Sunday's congressional election took place peacefully, despite widespread fears that the Revolutionary Armed
                      Forces of Colombia guerrillas would wreak havoc. Rebel roadblocks prevented voting in 15 towns, and more than
                      200 polling stations were moved to safer spots, officials said.

                      More than 100,000 police and military protected polling places. About 10 million of the country's 24 million
                      registered voters turned out despite the threats of violence.

                      Five incumbents seeking reelection, three congressional candidates and a presidential aspirant have been

                      The most high-profile candidate, Sen. Jorge Enrique Gechen, was taken from a hijacked plane Feb. 20, leading
                      President Andrés Pastrana to cancel peace talks with the rebels and order airstrikes against their former
                      stronghold. Early results showed Gechen in 114th place in a race with 102 open seats.

                      ''How you can vote for someone who is not there?'' said Patricia Perdomo, whose abducted mother, Consuelo
                      González de Perdomo, was in eighth place in Huila's lower house race. ``You don't know what they think or what
                      they propose. Let's even be pessimistic -- we don't even know if they are alive.''

                      The congressional elections are considered vital because they offer a sneak preview to May's presidential
                      elections. A pack of candidates is seeking to replace Pastrana, who is prohibited by law from seeking another
                      term. Former Gov. Alvaro Uribe of Antioquia province, who proposes a tough hand against the rebels, is leading in
                      the polls.

                      Early in the count, several of Uribe's supporters had enough to ensure a seat in Congress. The majority of top
                      vote-getters were Uribe backers, but a number of supporters of Horacio Serpa, a former foreign minister and
                      presidential candidate, also made a strong showing.

                      Other top vote-getters included Luis Alfredo Ramos, a former Medellín mayor, in the Senate race and Gina Parodi,
                      a 28-year-old lawyer who considers Uribe her ''political father,'' in the lower house. So far, the highest vote winner
                      in the senate race was former Health Minister Antonio Navarro Wolff, a former M-19 guerrilla.