- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006

BOGOTA, Colombia.

The presidential elections in Colombia and Peru were stunning triumphs for President Alvaro Uribe and ex-President Alan Garcia, as well as democracy in Latin America. At the same time they were a resounding defeat for Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and his perfervidly promoted Bolivarian Alternative.

Even Mr. Uribe’s closest supporters were surprised at his 62 percent landslide win in Colombia, and thousands of Peruvian voters held their breath and elected Mr. Garcia despite a failed 1985-90 presidency rather than allow Ollanta Humala, warmly endorsed by Hugo Chavez, to take office.

In Bogota, the ever reluctant El Tiempo (“The Times”), the country’s leading newspaper, had earlier opined that the president might squeak through in the first round by perhaps 51 percent or 52 percent, thereby not requiring a second round. The day after election, however, the paper’s lead editorial (also reluctantly?) hailed “a truly historic election day.”

Eerily reminiscent of its New York namesake during the Reagan administration, El Tiempo had been clearly averse to support the country’s most effective leader in modern times. News stories, editorials and op-eds regularly questioned President Uribe’s bold steps: taking the offensive versus Colombia’s multiple guerrilla groups; extraditing some 350 captured narcotics traffickers to the United States; intervening personally in free trade agreement negotiations with the U.S.

But Colombia’s voters liked what they saw during the past four years. What El Tiempo’s editorial writer saw — even in the afterglow of Mr. Uribe’s historic re-election — as “arrogance”, the people considered leadership; what the editorial termed “micro-management,” voters viewed as action.

Alvaro Uribe’s triumph was just the fourth time in Colombia’s nearly 200 years of independence that a president has been re-elected. The first: Hugo Chavez’s hero Simon Bolivar, re-elected in 1821 and again in 1825.

Mr. Uribe, however, is far different from Mr. Chavez and Bolivar, both of whom went on to become erratic and progressively ineffective dictators. In fact, his re-election and the turning away of Mr. Humala in Peru could very well represent critical downward turning points for the Bolivarian Alternative.

Mr. Humala, a political neophyte with a revolutionary populist message did everything possible to identify himself with Mr. Chavez. A week before the election, he traveled to Peru’s border and joined with Bolivia’s Chavista President Evo Morales to herald the arrival of Cuban doctors to a remote hospital. This earned him huge publicity but probably was the tipping point that cost him the election.

The choice in Peru was made more difficult because Alan Garcia, the other candidate in the presidential runoff, had so thoroughly disgraced himself during his earlier term, presiding over perhaps the country’s most corrupt administration during which inflation exploded and the currency depreciated faster than new bills could be printed.

All this sets the stage for a dramatic presidential election next month in Mexico. Voters will elect a successor to Vicente Fox, very possibly Felipe Calderon of Fox’s PAN party, over the previously leading mayor of Mexico City, Andres Lopez Obrador, a revolutionary populist-leftist. At this point, the race is too close to call, but Mr. Calderon has pulled even with Mr. Lopez Obrador after being behind as much as 15 points earlier in the year. Mexican analysts cite similar reasons as those that moved voters in Colombia and Peru: concerns that Lopez Obrador is an extremist and Chavez ally.

As these pivotal elections, other Latin leaders including Presidents Luiz Inacia Lula da Silva of Brazil, Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Tanare Vazquez of Uruguay are distancing themselves from Hugo Chavez.

A significant part of the momentum behind Colombia’s success the past four years has been Plan Colombia, a U.S. aid program, which has invested more than $3 billion in well-planned and -executed military training and economic development. As anti-guerrilla and narcotics offensives have registered success, foreign investment has flowed into Colombia, resulting in a growth rate estimated to exceed 5 percent in 2005.

Before Colombia becomes a solid success story, however, much remains to be accomplished across the economy and society, and the same holds true for Peru, where a strong economy gives the newly elected Mr. Garcia an opportunity to turn over the new leaf promised in his victory statement.

In short, the crypto-communist axis of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, plus their freshly installed Bolivian presidential acolyte Evo Morales, are weakened but by no means defeated. The Colombian and Peruvian elections have given the United States an unparalleled opportunity to rout the reactionary revolutionary forces that so recently seemed set to overrun virtually every nation south of the Rio Grande. And there are several straightforward steps Washington can take to once again set Latin America on a sensibly democratic, free market path.

In Colombia, Washington should:

• Ratify the free trade agreement with Colombia.

• Make every effort to conclude similar treaties with Uruguay, Ecuador (if possible), and any other nation willing to negotiate in good faith.

• Extend Plan Colombia, currently due to expire, for another four years.

As the U.S. moves to reward its most stalwart friend in Latin America, a sensible, controlled aid program should be developed for Peru.

The Bush administration’s understandable preoccupation with the war on terror notwithstanding, the United States has paid woefully scant attention to its Western Hemisphere neighbors. Alvaro Uribe’s unprecedented landslide victory and the defeat of Mr. Humala in Peru provide exceptional leverage to markedly strengthen relations with countries from Mexico to Chile.

Indeed, if we do not come to the support of our friends, the oft-stated slam at Uncle Sam will ring all too true in Latin America: “To be an enemy of the United States is dangerous, to be a friend can be disastrous.”

David James is a longtime observer of Central and South American politics.

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