- The Washington Times - Friday, July 10, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

For nearly seven years, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has led a successful fight to reclaim his country from the plague of narcoterrorism and to rebuild national confidence.

Simultaneously, Mr. Uribe first orchestrated re-election to a second term in 2006 and has since worked assiduously to be “drafted” for a third term beginning in 2010.

In so doing, a determined center-right free-marketer has put himself in the anti-term-limits company of ultraleftist autocrats, including Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador. All three have used extraconstitutional means to allow themselves multiple terms in office and, together with neighboring Nicaragua’s uber-left, uber-corrupt President Daniel Ortega, have supported their Honduran ally Manuel Zelaya in his criminally quixotic quest to remove restrictions to presidential re-election.

President Obama must have surprised Mr. Uribe when he supported term limits during their June 29 White House meeting and press conference. That Mr. Obama should have spoken at length about legitimacy and the importance of not appearing to manipulate or alter the electoral process — on the heels of his support for the Zelaya-Chavez attempt to unconstitutionally change the Honduran system — is only partly puzzling.

The U.S. president has developed a style wherein after taking a stand on one side of an issue, he adroitly moves to the other side. Moreover, whatever his personal affinity for Mr. Uribe, the very liberal Mr. Obama would undoubtedly feel more comfortable with a less strongly anti-leftist resident in the Casa de Narino, Colombia’s presidential palace.

That said, this observer does not think it is in the interest of democracy or Colombia for Mr. Uribe to serve a third term as the country’s president. Several potential successors could continue the fight against terrorism and narcotics. First and foremost are former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and Armed Forces Commanding Gen. Freddy Padilla, who have been Mr. Uribe’s indispensable partners in the war against narcoterrorism.

Together, the Uribe-Santos-Padilla triumvirate plotted and directed comprehensive reorganization of Colombia’s military, its U.S.-assisted training and uncounted successful offensive strikes against the guerrilla forces. Indeed, Gen. Padilla, now acting defense minister, has the broad respect and allegiance of a wide spectrum of Colombian society akin to that of U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, and could conceivably serve as a unifying candidate above the political fray for a security-conscious populace.

There are other candidates who share and even exceed Mr. Uribe’s vision. Two such are Finance Minister Oscar Ivan Zuluaga and former Agriculture Minister Andres Felipe Arias, both loyal Uribistas with solid executive and leadership experience.

In seven years, Mr. Uribe’s aggressive program of combating narcoterrorism has turned a fractured society into a solidly advancing and broadly patriotic nation, and reduced the disastrous cocaine-based drug industry by an estimated 30 percent. The once nationwide kidnapping scourge has been reduced by more than 75 percent.

When Mr. Uribe was inaugurated in 2002, the government tenuously controlled perhaps 40 percent of the country’s territory and 70 percent of the population. FARC and ELN guerrilla groups, purportedly espousing Marxism-Leninism but actually involved in massive cocaine production and kidnapping, effectively terrorized between 40 percent and 50 percent of the land and 20 percent of the population. The remaining territory and citizens were under the terrorizing thumb of so-called paramilitary groups like AUC, publicly advocating rightist anti-communist positions but actually aggressively concentrating on the drug trade and extortion.

Today, it is reliably estimated that the government’s writ runs across 90 percent of the land and 90 percent or more of the country’s 45 million citizens, with terrorists of the left and right a fraction of the size and force they represented seven years go.

There exists, however, an unmentioned factor that argues against the president’s serving another four years: Despite his commitment to national security and promotion of the free market, Mr. Uribe’s attention to Colombia’s endemic corruption has been limited at best.

Corruption is broad and deep throughout all levels of government and the private sector. Economic analysts agree the country cannot enjoy significant, prolonged development unless corruption’s draining effect is sharply reduced.

Though he is still popular and respected by a majority of Colombians, it is highly improbable that Mr. Uribe could muster the necessary motivation, energy and backing to lead a major anti-corruption drive after two grinding terms guiding the country.

Mr. Zelaya’s defiance of Honduras’ Congress, Supreme Court and military, and his removal from office and the fracturing of Honduran society should in fact give Mr. Uribe pause in his quest for a third term.

If this were not enough, the degree of corruption and all-around inefficiency that has gripped Honduras should ring a loud, cautionary bell for any Colombian aspiring to the highest office in the land.

John R. Thomson is a geopolitical analyst, journalist and former diplomat who follows the politics and economies of developing countries.

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