The Miami Herald
May. 25, 2003

Alvaro Uribe's first year

A message of hope and a struggle for stability


  BOGOTA - It's a town hall meeting on a recent Saturday afternoon, and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is listening to the minister of transportation drone on about upcoming bridge and road projects.

  The president is smiling and his eyes are twinkling. Uribe's political reform project is falling apart, the governor of his home state has just been murdered, and the
  workaholic president who can recite the Gettysburg Address by memory looks like he's having the time of his life.

  ''Alvaro is like an athlete,'' said his aide José Obdulio Gaviria. "He rests while he's training.''

  It has been a year since Uribe swept Colombia's presidential elections, winning more than 50 percent of the vote over a field packed with candidates. He promised order. He promised results. And despite serious gaffes and repeated constitutional setbacks, Uribe, many here say, has largely delivered.

  Nine months into his four-year term, Uribe's administration has managed to make serious inroads against the lawlessness that plagues this South American nation, and restore something most Colombians thought long gone: faith. Although he is beset by criticism that his quest for safety comes at the cost of human rights, even detractors admit that for the first time in decades, Colombians feel safer.

  ''Hope,'' Vice President Francisco Santos said when asked to cite the president's most important accomplishment. 'People have hope. People were desperate and now are saying, 'Wow, things can really change.' ''

  Uribe and Santos took office in August against a backdrop of terrible events.

  Peace talks with the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- or FARC -- had broken off seven months earlier and the rebel group had launched a terror campaign, blowing up bridges, cars and people. They had kidnapped one of Uribe's opponents in the race, Ingrid Betancourt, who remains captive.

  On inauguration day, the FARC challenged the former Antioquia governor's pledge to impose law and order by launching crude homemade explosives at the presidential palace. The wayward rockets missed. Among the casualties: nearly two dozen homeless drug addicts in a shantytown.

  Uribe immediately declared a nationwide state of emergency, which allowed him to create special war zones where tactics of dubious legality were put in place to net guerrillas. The armed forces, long criticized for their reactive response to the FARC, went on the offensive, staging sudden roundups in rebel zones to force citizens to provide proof of identification and searching homes without warrants.

  Many of the measures, including a rule that forced foreigners to request permission to travel to the 26 cities in the special so-called ''rehabilitation zones,'' were deemed unconstitutional. Eventually the state of emergency was lifted because the constitutional court said Uribe had illegally prolonged it.

  Uribe has countered by moving ahead with legislation that would make some of those emergency measures permanent.

  Last week, the nation's ombudsman and inspector general issued reports showing the rehabilitation zones were largely a failure.

  In Arauca, the nation's most violent state, only 69 guerrillas have been arrested since the zones were created, and not a single member of the illegal rightist army, the
  United Self Defense Forces, has been captured. One city, Tame, has registered 104 murders so far this year; it had 144 in all of 2002.

  ''The creation of the rehabilitation zone is perceived by the population as an open war front,'' the ombudsman's report said. ``It has meant a more brutal war and a
  degradation of the armed conflict.''

  But although many criticize the armed forces -- Santos says the army moves ''like an elephant'' -- others look at the military's moves this year and see progress. The
  police and army regained territory long lost to rebel groups. Police stations were built in small towns around the country, bringing state presence to abandoned regions.

  ''We sense public forces taking the initiative; we feel determined to beat terrorism,'' Uribe said in a recent speech. ``It's our great hope in the middle of all this pain.''


  According to Colombian National Police statistics, the results have been substantial.

  Compared to the January to April period last year, Colombia's murder rate dropped about 20 percent, from 9,729 killings to 7,765. In the capital, terrorist attacks dropped from 687 to 361, and nationwide nearly 300 fewer people were kidnapped.

  ''That's a lot of people,'' Santos said.

  By flooding the highways with soldiers and police, the government also has managed to restore confidence in what was once considered one of Colombia's most dangerous activities: driving on the nation's highways. Rebels used highways as a stage for illegal roadblocks, where they plucked people who would likely fetch a good ransom from their cars and kept them.

  Today, Colombians take to the roads with greater confidence that they will actually arrive safely at their destinations. But, even so, Uribe's critics see a dangerous pattern.

  ''The government thinks all problems are solved with arms and force,'' said Jorge Rojas, who runs an aid group for people fleeing violence. ``Uribe can't get out of that trap he created.''

  Rojas said 412,000 people fled their homes last year because of increased violence, up 20 percent from 2001. Last year's displacement figures set a 17-year record. Rojas estimates that 1,144 run from violence here each day.

  ''Every day, I see bigger investments and fewer results,'' Rojas said. ``This honeymoon isn't going to last much longer.''

  That honeymoon nearly ended for good on May 5 when the army stormed a jungle guerrilla camp to rescue a former defense minister and the governor of Antioquia, who had been kidnapped a year earlier. The outcome was catastrophic. Soldiers' use of helicopters tipped off guerrillas to their arrival. By the time they made it to the jungle camp, 10 hostages had been killed and the rebels were gone.

  Still, instead of being the blow that knocked Uribe's law-and-order agenda off track forever, experts say the damage control was brilliant. In an emotional televised speech that same night, Uribe took responsibility for the failed mission. He escaped politically unscathed.

  ''Uribe has an advantage: The FARC is so dim-witted, has so little respect for life, that he looks great in comparison,'' said Sen. Antonio Navarro, a former member of the M-19, a defunct guerrilla group. ``Uribe's mistakes are evident, but as long as they keep having results in public order, he'll keep having support.''


  Polls show Uribe enjoys unprecedented and ever-increasing approval ratings. An April Invamer Gallup survey showed his approval ratings at 68 percent, up from 60 percent the previous month. But while 57 percent of Colombians approve of the government's current strategy of dealing with the guerrillas, 46 percent of those
  questioned thought life overall had worsened under his administration.

  Nearly 60 percent feel the government is not doing enough to combat unemployment.

  Navarro, like other critics, said although Uribe has made gains in public safety, he has yet to address severe economic woes at the root of the civil conflict. Colombia has one of the highest unemployment rates in Latin America, and little foreign investment to offset it.

  Gaviria, Uribe's aide, said growth is projected to reach 2 percent this year, modest but notable for a nation at war. The unemployment rate, he said, has already dipped from 15 percent to 13.

  Gaviria acknowledged that the drop is due not so much to job creation but to increased financial aid for college students, which took thousands of young people off the unemployment rolls and into the university.

  In primary education, the government has created 400,000 new school seats. There are 2.5 million children who don't attend school in Colombia, and Uribe hopes to find a spot for at least 1.5 million of them.

  ''I expect to see a country with different political customs; I expect to see a country firmly committed to job programs and expect to see a country that controls public order,'' said Senate President Luis Alfredo Ramos, a devoted Uribe ally. ``He has too many goals, but it's the least we can expect, or we'd be submitted to living in the current situation forever.

  ``We're optimistic.''

  Although Ramos stresses Uribe's positive relations with Congress -- it approves almost everything he sends its way -- most analysts question the administration's
  teamwork. Cabinet members take public swipes at one another, and Uribe has failed to keep them in line.

  The most public infighting has been between Defense Minister Martha Lucía Ramírez and a host of generals, who openly question her decisions.

  ''It's like French soccer,'' said Lucho Garzón, who came in third in last year's presidential race. ``All stars and no goals.''


  For Uribe, perhaps the biggest stumbling block will be passing his plan for political reform, which, among other goals, reduces the size of Congress and eliminates certain municipal jobs. The constitutional court has said much of the Uribe reform package winding its way through Congress is illegal, but the president has vowed to circumvent the court by taking the package directly to voters.

  And if that happens, Uribe expects smooth sailing.

  ''He knows where he's standing,'' said Ligia Sierra, who recently attended one of Uribe's weekly community town hall meetings. ``He's fearless.''