Uribe set to hold on against Latin America's 'pink tide'

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The Independent US

Looking south from the high ground above Bogota, countless shacks sweep toward the horizon. Nobody knows how many people live in these impoverished neighbourhoods, or barrios, but they are among the largest and most chaotic in Latin America. Poverty and civil conflict have driven as many as three or four million Colombians to the outskirts of the capital.

In the broken brick and rusted metal of the notorious barrio of Cuidad Bolivar, red and yellow election posters cover every available flat surface bearing the slogan "Adelante Presidente" (Go Ahead, Mr President). The President in question is Alvaro Uribe.

Unlike his counterparts across the Andes in Bolivia and Peru, Mr Uribe is a right-winger. There will be no left turn in Colombia's elections tomorrow. The "pink tide" that is washing the continent stops here. Popular movements rooted in the endemic poverty of Latin America have transformed politics from Brazil to Nicaragua, but Washington's last ally in the region is expected to win re-election comfortably.

More than 3,000 civilians are killed every year in Colombia's internal conflict - a seemingly endless battle that has pitted government forces against Marxist guerrilla groups and latterly right-wing paramilitaries.

In the slums of Bogota, Mr Uribe's tough posturing against the guerrilla group Farc, and his message of security, hits home. "I'm going to vote for Uribe again," said Edelmira Reyes, a cleaner from Bolivar City. "He's the only tough president I can remember who's actually stood up to the Farc and not given into them like all his predecessors did."

Four years ago, Mr Uribe was elected to defeat Farc, the country's most powerful guerrilla group, by waging an all-out war. Colombia, already the largest recipient of US military aid in the world, got a new $1.3bn (£700m) cash injection under Plan Colombia, so that its armed forces were better trained and equipped to attack insurgent groups and eradicate the thousands of hectares of coca, the raw material for cocaine, which keeps Farc coffers replenished. While some 80 per cent of the cocaine sold in the United States comes from Colombia, the two nations have been close partners in the war on drugs for decades.

During Mr Uribe's tenure, there have been almost daily clashes between the guerrillas and armed forces, which is exactly what Mr Uribe's supporters demanded. Polls give the 53-year-old President a big lead, with 57 per cent of the vote, which guarantees him an unprecedented consecutive victory in the first round of voting. He is followed by the leftist contender, Carlos Gaviria, a former university vice-rector, with a predicted 19 per cent of the vote. Mr Gaviria's unexpected rise in the polls has overshadowed the veteran Liberal presidential candidate, Horacio Serpa, who has fallen into third place, with just 13 per cent.

In a country which has a derelict railway system, regaining control of the road network which was once ridden with guerrilla roadblocks has played a key role in making middle- to upper-income Colombians feel safer. "Before, you couldn't drive an hour outside of Bogota without coming across a guerrilla roadblock," said Luis Ospina, a lorry driver. "Now you can't go an hour without a police checkpoint."

Alfredo Rangel, director of the Foundation for Security and Democracy, a think-tank based in Bogota, said: "Here the left is not seen as a popular movement of the people but is associated with guerrilla groups, failed armed struggles and even terrorism. Colombia is a paradox. Despite the years of fighting it has remained relatively stable politically."

There have been none of the coups, purges and dictatorships that have blighted much of Latin America. The country's European-descended oligarchs have maintained political and economic power between liberal and conservative governments. The result is that a relative handful of wealthy families own almost all the fertile land and have little interest in policing and controlling what remains.