February 27, 2010 / 6:35 PM / 10 years ago

After eight years, Uribe a fighter until the end

BOGOTA (Reuters) - When first elected in 2002, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe vowed he would bring the country’s Marxist rebels to their knees and draw investors back to a country dismissed as a failing state mired in violence.

Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe gestures during a health meeting in Barranquilla February 26, 2010. REUTERS/Jairo Castilla

After nearly eight years in office, the bespectacled lawyer learned on Friday that efforts to allow him to serve a third term had failed and he must step aside.

Colombia’s Constitutional Court struck down an attempt by Uribe’s allies to amend the law and let the president remain in office for four more years. The ruling dashed hopes that the the man many Colombians credit for pulling the country back from the brink could serve again.

While foreign investment is flooding into mining and oil and the rebels are at their weakest in decades, the five-decade-long conflict lingers.

Though he looked more like a school teacher than a tough, hands-on leader, Uribe’s no-nonsense style in the middle of conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, made him the most popular Colombian president in memory.

His approval rating has never fallen below 60 percent even as scandals hit his government.

“You solve one problem and up come a thousand more and that’s why the government can never sleep,” Uribe told a crowd gathered on red chairs at a recent town hall meeting.

Violence, kidnappings and bombings from Colombia’s war with the FARC plummeted after he became president and began a U.S.-backed campaign to smash the insurgency and re-open highways long preyed upon by guerrillas.

Washington’s chief ally in a region where left-wing leaders preach anti-U.S. rhetoric, Uribe never stood down from a fight. He faced off with Venezuela and Ecuador in his second term after Colombian troops crossed over into Ecuadorean territory to kill a rebel leader hiding there.

Just last week, he fended off Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, trading insults with his counterpart and telling him bluntly to “Act like a man!”

FATHER MURDERED

Born into a wealthy ranching family near Medellin, Uribe was mayor of the city and a councilman before becoming a senator and governor. Stern and straight-laced, 57-year-old Uribe studied at Oxford and Harvard.

But he connected with Colombians across the social classes, perhaps because he shared tragedy in the conflict. His father was killed two decades ago in a botched rebel kidnapping.

He rose to the presidency with a hard-line message just as peace talks with the FARC fell apart and the guerrillas were kidnapping politicians and attacking military posts.

The FARC came close to killing the then-presidential candidate himself, buckling his car with a bomb during a campaign stop. Uribe calmly stepped out to check on the wounded.

Every Saturday, he has held weekly community town halls, where with a populist touch he often berates local officials and ministers for failures to tackle local issues.

Like an astute politician on the campaign trail, Uribe spends hours micro-managing aqueduct and school building projects, lecturing on health service reforms and reeling off his government’s security successes against rebels.

He once had a man arrested in the audience of one meeting for suspected drug ties.

For critics, his Saturday appearances show a populist, authoritarian style of a leader whom they say runs the country like the owner would a private farm, is uncomfortably lenient on former paramilitaries, and is intolerant of critics. His re-election would have undermined democracy, they say.

For supporters, Uribe’s approach is what a country like Colombia needs: a hands-on, efficient leader who tolerates no slacking. They say he deserved re-election to carry on his work transforming the country from a once tottering state.

At times he has an odd theatrical touch for a man who appears mostly serious. At a Medellin farm he once treated visiting U.S. lawmakers to an impromptu show of his equestrian skills, riding one of his prized horses while carrying a cup of Colombian coffee.

Uribe, who has in the past practiced yoga to help with stress, has a famous temper. He has little time for critics.

Throughout his political career he dismissed critics who said he was too cozy with outlawed paramilitaries who once fought the FARC rebels before they surrendered in a peace deal with his government. Rights groups say he has since done too little to crack down on paramilitary influence and violence.

His second term has been marred by scandals. Trials of loyal lawmakers accused of paramilitary links, human rights abuses by troops, corruption probes and a scandal over illegal wiretapping of his opponents all tainted his government.

Still, Uribe has managed to brush off most scandals with a Teflon-like talent to evade heavy political cost.

“My spirit is calm whatever happens,” Uribe said before the court ruling. “All I ask is that I can work for Colombia from wherever I am until the last day of my life.”

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