Colombia’s Uribe soars after freeing hostages

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia – – President Álvaro Uribe is still soaking up the glory of last week’s spectacular rescue of 15 high-profile hostages held in the Colombian jungle for years by leftist rebels.

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia – – President Álvaro Uribe is still soaking up the glory of last week’s spectacular rescue of 15 high-profile hostages held in the Colombian jungle for years by leftist rebels.

Polls released Sunday show that Mr. Uribe’s approval rating – which was already at 73 percent – soared to 91 percent after the rescue, which freed French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, three American defense contractors, and 11 Colombian soldiers and police.

Wednesday’s bloodless intelligence operation tricked the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) into taking their most prized hostages on a helicopter they believed would transport them to the group’s top leaders. Instead, the chopper was piloted by undercover military operatives who took the captives to freedom.

It was such a coup against the FARC that even some of Uribe’s most fervent critics are heaping on the praise.

“It was brilliant,” said Marta Pabón, who normally considers herself a detractor of Uribe, as she walked her dog Sunday morning. “No one can take that recognition from him. But I’m afraid now of how he will use that politically.”

Could Uribe get a third term?
Uribe, who was originally elected in 2002, then again in 2006, has been toying with the idea of seeking a constitutional amendment to allow him to run for yet another term in office. His supporters say they have already collected enough signatures to call a referendum on the issue.

The Sunday poll by the Napoleon Franco agency, published in the El Espectador daily, showed that 79 percent of voters, if given the choice, would vote for Uribe, compared with 69 percent before the rescue.

Perhaps the most powerful endorsement for Uribe to try to continue in power was Ms. Betancourt herself, who gushed praise on the president for an “impeccable” operation.

In a press conference the day after her rescue, she said she like the idea of a third term for Uribe.

Betancourt – who was a presidential candidate herself when she was kidnapped in 2002 – said that aside from the rescue operation that freed her and her fellow hostages, the biggest blow to the FARC had been the reelection of the hardline president to a second consecutive term in 2006.

“The reelection changed the rules of the game for the FARC,” she said. “The FARC had gotten used to waiting for changes in government to gain new momentum, but with the system of reelection of president Uribe, the rules changed.”

Indeed, it’s hard to overstate how Uribe’s actions – especially this most recent operation – have weakened the leftist rebels, say experts.

With that one operation, Uribe freed hostages – some of whom had languished in jungle camps for more than a decade. He took away the FARC’s most important bargaining chips and set the stage for Uribe to stay in power.

“For the FARC this is a mortal blow. They will never be able to recover from this,” says Alfredo Rangel, military analyst and director of the Security and Democracy Foundation in Bogotá.

This happens at the worst moment for the FARC, he added, following the death of three members of its top secretariat this year, including legendary top leader Manuel Marulanda.

Following those setbacks, “the FARC is trying to regroup,” says Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “[Uribe] felt that before [FARC was] able to regroup, this was the time to take a risk. I think it illustrates the disarray of the FARC [and] also the improved capacity of the Colombian government and their greater intelligence.”

For Uribe, raid eases political woes
For Mr. Uribe, the operation could not have come a better time. His government had been thrown into a tailspin by a corruption scandal that cast doubts on the legitimacy of his current term as president. “It’s like a soothing balm for Uribe,” says Mr. Rangel.

It’s also a coup for Uribe because the conservative leader’s leftist nemesis in neighboring Venezuela – Hugo Chávez – had been scoring big PR points by brokering the release of several FARC hostages in recent months.

The fact that Mr. Chávez was not involved bolsters Uribe, says Shifter. “It offsets Chávez’s argument that he’s the only one who can succeed in releasing hostages. It dilutes Chávez’s bravado. This is something the Colombian government did on its own.”

But at home, Uribe’s political troubles remain unsolved. His second term has come into question by a Colombian Supreme Court ruling in a bribery case that just days before the rescue operation, appeared to complicate Uribe’s chances to continue in power.

The court sentenced a former member of Colombia’s congress to nearly four years in prison for accepting favors in exchange for casting the deciding vote in the constitutional amendment that allowed Uribe’s reelection.

The court called into question the legitimacy of the election.

Those who oppose the idea of changing the Constitution so that he can run again in 2010 say it would put him in league with his continental rival, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who has been widely characterized as autocratic for doing his utmost to try to stay president for life.

Critics: Uribe becoming autocratic
The center-left opposition party Polo Democrático Alternativo, while praising the rescue operation has said it is concerned about Uribe possibly using it to amass too much power.

“We will continue with our criticism of the government for eroding state institutions,” said Polo leader Carlos Gaviria Díaz.

Now analysts say Uribe’s government is set up for a battle with the courts.

Uribe has long been at odds with the Supreme Court, which has vigorously prosecuted close allies of the president – including his second cousin – for allegedly colluding with right-wing death squads. One in 10 Colombian congressmen are in prison in that scandal.

Still, Riordan Roett, director of Western Hemisphere at the Johns Hopkins University School for Strategic International Studies says there’s little to stop Uribe now: “If he wants a third term, he’ll get a third term.”

• Staff writer Sara Miller Llana contributed from Mexico City.

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.