- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 28, 2002

BOGOTA, Colombia Colombian President-elect Alvaro Uribe awoke yesterday with a clear but seemingly impossible mandate: Conquer leftist guerrillas, battle corruption, revive a slumping economy and impose order in one of world's most violent and insecure nations.

Mr. Uribe, who takes over for President Andres Pastrana in August, won a resounding first-round victory in largely peaceful elections Sunday, taking 53 percent of the vote, versus 31.7 percent for Horacio Serpa, his closest challenger.

"He's got a herculean task before him," said Bruce Bagley, a Colombia expert at the University of Miami. "It's going to be extremely difficult to fulfill even part of what he aspires to do during his four years of the presidency."

The 49-year-old Harvard-educated Mr. Uribe wants more military aid from the United States, which dovetails with the Bush administration's plans. Although his election could herald bloodier fighting, Mr. Uribe's promise of security appeals to Colombians desperately seeking relief from a 38-year war.

"We ask God to illuminate us, to give us determination and energy to do good for Colombia," Mr. Uribe told foreign reporters yesterday.

Mr. Uribe spoke during a news conference at which he appealed for U.S. aid to stop cocaine and heroin from leaving Colombia and to prevent arms shipments from being smuggled to Colombia's outlawed guerrilla and paramilitary groups.

"If we don't resolve it, this conflict has a dangerous potential to destabilize Latin America," he said. "We need help from the United States in order to preserve our democracy."

Mr. Uribe's ambitious agenda goes beyond the crackdown on guerrillas. He plans a referendum to nearly halve the size of congress and reduce corruption. He also promised to create jobs, build roads, revolutionize education and trim a bloated public-pension system.

But bureaucrats, Congress and angry state workers could stand in his way, as could Colombians' traditional aversion to higher taxes.

The United States' willingness to provide more military aid could depend on whether Mr. Uribe's planned crackdown on guerrillas would also extend to a right-wing paramilitary group that has massacred suspected rebel collaborators.

Mr. Uribe said he will combat all armed groups but also said he was open to peace talks with the paramilitaries, which his predecessors have refused.

Mr. Pastrana, whose term ends in August, vastly improved Colombia's relations with the United States, obtaining $1.7 billion in U.S. assistance in the past two years for his Plan Colombia drug-fighting initiative. Mr. Uribe said he would keep Colombia's ambassador to Washington, Luis Moreno, in place, saying he has been key in solidifying Colombian-U.S. ties.

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