Sun, Oct 26, 2008 - Page 7 News List

ANALYSIS: Colombian president may face rough road

AFP , BOGOTA

An indigenous man builds a tent during a rally near the village of Villarica, Colombia, on Friday. “The rally for the dignity of the people” is to arrive in Cali today or tomorrow. The protesters have called a meeting with President Alvaro Uribe.

PHOTO: EPA

Labor strikes, indigenous protests, a slowing economy — these are some of the dark clouds looming over the last two years of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s second term in office that threaten to eclipse his sky-high approval ratings.

Uribe, a conservative first elected in 2002 and re-elected in 2006, has a 78 percent approval rating according to a Gallup poll last month. He remains the most popular head of state in Latin America — though his popularity appears to be slipping.

The government’s woes have been multiple: truckers on strike in August, and a six-week strike of court workers that ended this month. Even sugar cane cutters went on strike in the middle of last month.

And since Oct. 10 thousands of indigenous Colombians — representing about 3.2 percent of the population — have been holding protest marches demanding the government fulfill a promise to hand over land. They are also angry at what they say are abuses on their community carried out by leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and army soldiers.

Uribe faces a potentially major headache as political egos begin to sharpen ahead of the 2010 presidential election. One outcome was Congress’ refusal to approve an Uribe-supported reform of the judiciary.

Abroad the president also faces the possibility of losing his main benefactor, as US President George W. Bush, a staunch Colombia supporter, is less likely to be replaced in the upcoming election by fellow Republican Senator John McCain — who visited Colombia in July — than by Democrat Senator Barack Obama, who leads in US opinion polls.

Bush and McCain are strong supporters of a US free trade agreement with Colombia, while Obama and the Democrats want the agreement delayed to obtain more human rights protections, especially for Colombian labor leaders.

In December the UN Commission on Human Rights is to look closely at human rights in Colombia, including studying a report from non-governmental organizations charging that the Colombian state “tolerates” and even “supports” thousands of crimes carried out by right-wing paramilitary forces.

Uribe “is at a crossroads,” said a foreign diplomat stationed in Bogota who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“There is a multiplication of protest marches, often turning violent, and the government seems to be on the defensive with sometimes aggressive reactions,” the diplomat said.

Early this month Uribe issued an emergency decree granting officials extra authority to handle the court employee strike. They went back to work, but the decree remains in effect.

Over the last week and with the indigenous protest gaining strength, the government charged that the group had been infiltrated by leftist rebels with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It then charged union leaders plotting a general strike with maneuvering the workers to destabilize his government.

“President Uribe should now show his leadership capability, because he’s always had everything in his favor,” said Leon Valencia, a political analyst and former guerrilla fighter.

“One doesn’t live off of ‘Democratic Security’ alone, and the government must understand that,” Valencia said, referring to the name of Uribe’s policy of keeping rebels far from the large cities that has allowed many Colombians to resume normal lives.

Out of a population of 42 million, about half of all Colombians live below the poverty line — and they want answers to “a series of unfulfilled promises concerning salaries and other benefits,” Valencia said.

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