As he stood in the plaza of this remote coffee-growing town hoping for a glimpse of President Alvaro Uribe, cattle rancher Antonio Jaramillo said the reason for Uribe’s striking popularity was simple.
Before Uribe became president, life was chaotic because of armed groups that terrorized residents, Jaramillo said.
“Now we have peace,” he said. “That’s why we want him to stay for another election. If not, life will become difficult again.”
A seemingly humorless workaholic, the thin and bespectacled Uribe could be mistaken for an accountant or professor. But in places such as Aguadas, the no-nonsense Harvard-educated lawyer is widely admired for having subdued rebels and having brought Colombia back from the abyss of violence and despair.
A few years ago, right-wing paramilitary gangs and left-wing rebels took turns terrorizing this town of 20,000, threatening residents, extorting from businesses and killing at will, said Mayor Jorge Ivan Salazar. One of the victims was a mayoral predecessor, Oscar Trujillo, killed by unknown assailants in 2000.
Last week’s spectacular army rescue of 15 hostages, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three American defense contractors, boosted Uribe’s already stratospheric popularity. Several polls over the weekend put his approval rating at above 80%.
Now the daring operation has also elevated the president’s chances for a third term despite constitutional hurdles and criticism that he is autocratic and intolerant of views that differ from his own.
Although Uribe has not said whether he will seek another term, analysts say that his overwhelming popularity makes his candidacy in 2010 a near certainty. He won a second term in 2006 thanks to a constitutional amendment that provided a one-time exception to the country’s ban on reelection.
“It’s what the country wants,” said Maria Jimena Duzan, a magazine columnist who wrote a book critical of Uribe. “He has a blank check.”
The 56-year-old Uribe is Washington’s closest ally in Latin America and a crucial counterweight to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in a region where leftist ideology and anti-U.S. sentiment are widespread. President Bush has welcomed Uribe at his Texas ranch and called him a friend.
Uribe’s domestic support is founded on building up the security forces and restoring some measure of law and order, helped by more than $5 billion in U.S. aid under the Plan Colombia initiative targeting drugs and terrorism. A country that a few years ago was slipping into chaos has seen kidnappings and murders plunge by two-thirds since he took office -- although the global cocaine traffic is booming.
Talk of a third term alarms critics and admirers alike who say Uribe exhibits anti-democratic tendencies reminiscent of a Latin American caudillo, or strongman.
“When leadership is concentrated in only one person, and this person stumbles, the country’s morale may collapse,” Sen. Gustavo Petro, part of the leftist opposition in Congress, told El Espectador newspaper.
Many see Uribe’s drive to extend his power as detrimental to a nation struggling to cement a fragile democratic tradition after decades of instability.
“The orchestra is playing very well in many aspects,” said former Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus, “but people only see the conductor.”
Uribe is an unusual mix of technocrat and populist. He is a somewhat wooden orator, but his blunt proclamations connect with a population fed up with political doublespeak.
Critics say the scion of a wealthy landowning family treats the country as his personal finca, or estate.
“He has a feudal concept of government,” Duzan said. “He is a control freak who wants to manage everything.”
To his detractors, Uribe is a polarizing figure who brooks no dissent. He labeled Ivan Cepeda, the son of a murdered senator who leads a nationwide network of victims groups, a “terrorist.”
Even Betancourt, the charismatic former senator and presidential candidate whose rescue last week with 14 other hostages sparked national euphoria, urged Uribe on Monday to soften his tone, after effusively praising the president upon her release.
Uribe has long denied links to paramilitary groups, and lately he and allies have dismissed allegations of electoral bribery. Democrats in the U.S. Congress have called for vigorous prosecution in extrajudicial slayings, including the deaths of scores of trade unionists since he took office in 2002.
Such issues continue to impede a U.S.-Colombia free trade deal, a priority for Uribe and the Bush administration.
A defining moment for Uribe was his father’s kidnapping and murder in 1983 by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC. His political career has been dedicated to vanquishing insurgents who at one point controlled a quarter of the country, had encircled the capital and had the Colombian military on the ropes.
He took office at a time when many Colombians were disgusted with the rebels’ perceived refusal to negotiate in any meaningful fashion. Uribe pledged to crack down and never again give an inch of land to the rebels.
“He ran at a moment when the entire country was furious,” Duzan said. “People thought the FARC had tricked them.”
Today, foreign investment is up, and roads that were too dangerous to travel are now full of traffic. The capital, Bogota, is alive with outdoor cafes and trendy restaurants.
For the overwhelming majority of Colombians, Uribe has been nothing short of heroic.
Uribe’s popularity was evident in Aguadas, about 100 miles northwest of Bogota, on Saturday when he arrived at the high school to convene one of his weekly town hall meetings. A standing ovation from 800 townsfolk greeted Uribe and various ministers.
“Let’s not get distracted,” Uribe said, referring to the national jubilation that has swept Colombia since the July 2 rescue of the hostages. “If one gets overconfident, you become like the bullfighter who starts to look up in the stands, looking for applause, only to end up getting gored.”
As is his routine, Uribe listened to a succession of local officials and citizens as they presented a list of requests, including road improvements, new health clinics and loans for farmers. He then assigned each demand and complaint to the responsible minister, making each one accountable.
“People like the fact that he confronts problems directly and publicly,” said Juan Manuel Charry, an independent political analyst. “He’s in your face, and people like it.”
The president and his entourage of perhaps 100 officials, including a vigilant security detail, returned to their helicopters as the Andean cloud cover moved in. Grateful residents presented him with one of the straw hats for which the region is famous.
Before departing, Uribe pledged to return soon and make sure the promised aid would materialize.
“There’s still pain out there,” Uribe concluded, noting that hundreds of Colombians remain hostages of left-wing guerrillas. “But we’re going to continue with this job.”