Sunday, May 4, 2008

Scandal? What's That?

This is an Associated Press article, by Frank Bajak, dated May 4th, 2008 discussing an interesting aspect of the political situation here in Colombia:

These are trying days for President Alvaro Uribe, Washington's closest ally in a region dominated by leftist leaders.

Opposition lawmakers are seeking his impeachment on charges that aides offered political favors for votes. His longtime confidante has joined dozens of allies jailed for alleged ties to illegal, drug-trafficking militias. U.S. Democrats are blocking White House attempts to approve a free-trade agreement because of his human rights record.

In most countries, a president in such a pickle would be on the ropes. Yet Uribe's approval rating — consistently above 70 percent in opinion polls — is the highest of any president in the Americas.

"It's almost as if he's a person with supernatural powers that let him do whatever he likes," said leading newspaper columnist Maria Jimena Duzan.

Uribe's closest political adviser, Jose Obdulio Gaviria, said the president's popularity is reward for his dedication and for vigorously battling crime on all fronts, bringing down murder and kidnapping rates.

"Jesus Christ was also condemned to death, and I understand that his historical popularity remains intact," Gaviria told The Associated Press.

Uribe's Teflon presidency has various explanations.

Backed by billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, Uribe has managed to knock off balance the peasant-based Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — something no president had managed since the FARC's 1964 birth.

He also has seen success in killing or capturing drug lords, including twin brothers who the defense minister said controlled roughly half the country's armed gangs: one was slain April 29, the other arrested two days later.

Then there's Colombia's economy, which grew by 7.5 percent last year and averaged 5.5 percent growth from 2003-2007 as Uribe's vigorous privatization of state-run enterprises spurred foreign investment.

And there's Uribe's style. Colombians love his wonkish, take-charge approach. Statistics roll off his tongue through regular 18-hour work days. He drags ministers and generals to daylong communal councils in dangerous backwaters where he rolls up his sleeves and digs into details.

By far the greatest coup has been Uribe's pursuit of the FARC, most spectacularly with a March 1 cross-border raid into Ecuador that killed Raul Reyes, the rebels' foreign minister.

Contempt for the FARC is so widespread that people are willing to overlook ties between Uribe-allied politicians and right-wing death squads formed to counter the rebels.

"The promise that he's going to defeat the FARC is fundamental to his popularity," said political analyst Leon Valencia.

Crime prevention is another big selling point.

"If you are living in a city or on a main road — and that's about 80 percent of the people — you are feeling a whole lot safer," said Adam Isacson, an analyst with the liberal Washington-based Center for International Policy.

Colombia's opinion makers generally esteem Uribe. Any time he wants to sound off, he calls a radio network and talks for an hour or two. Most Colombians get their news from the radio, and supporters love his directness, even when he's confronting the latest scandal dogging his government.

He has done that a lot lately. On Tuesday, he responded quickly after 10 opposition lawmakers called for his impeachment for allegedly offering favors to then-Rep. Yidis Medina in return for reversing herself on a crucial 2004 committee vote that allowed him to run for re-election. Yidis surrendered April 27, saying she'll plead guilty to bribery and implicate the president and three close aides.

"The national government persuades. It doesn't buy consciences," Uribe told reporters Tuesday during a trip to the southwestern city of Neiva. He denied offering favors for the vote.

Another scandal assailing Uribe is over mutually beneficial relations between some of his closest political allies and the outlaw far-right paramilitaries that demobilized under a peace pact with his government.

Ten percent of Colombia's 268 federal lawmakers are jailed on charges of backing or benefiting from the groups, and another 10 percent are under investigation. On April 22 his second cousin and political confidante was jailed as well.

The scandal, compounding concerns over the killing of union activists, is complicating attempts by Uribe and his ally, President Bush, to persuade the Democratic leadership in the U.S. Congress to stop delaying a vote on a free-trade pact.

The raid that killed Reyes earned Uribe international reproach and threats of war from Ecuador and Venezuela. Uribe apologized for violating Ecuadorean sovereignty but refused to say he wouldn't do it again.

A week later, Gallup conducted a poll of 1,000 Colombians — people with telephones in the country's four biggest cities — with a margin of error of three percentage points.

Uribe's approval rating was 84 percent. It was his highest ever.


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