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A Latin leader set to defy leftist trend

Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe looks likely to win reelection Sunday.

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As leftists and popu-list politicians - some of them overtly anti-American - gain strength across Latin America, Colombia's conservative president, Alvaro Uribe, stands out as a political island.

The slight, bespectacled yoga enthusiast with an amateur historian's interest in the US Civil War (he knows the Gettysburg Address by heart) is expected to be reelected here Sunday. Uribe has more than 57 percent support, enough to win elections in the first round, according to the Napoleón Franco Group, a polling firm here.

The reason, say observers, is that Colombians feel safer - and better off economically - today.

"Uribe is a remarkable leader," says Michael Shifter, vice president of the InterAmerican Dialogue, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "He has an acute sense of what the people want, and despite continuing, serious problems, has made real progress on the security front."

Indeed, three days before the elections wealthy young Colombians while away the late afternoon at trendy outdoor cafes in Bogotá. In Plaza Bolivar, school children in plaid uniforms race to scatter the pigeons and small groups of tourists gather for the changing of the presidential guard nearby.

Four years ago, when Mr. Uribe took office, Colombia looked much different. Car bombings and kidnappings were an almost daily occurrence. Talks between the government and leftist rebels to end 40 years of insurgency had just collapsed, and Frommer's didn't even bother including Colombia in its South America tour guide.

Today, the ongoing conflict between rebels and right-wing paramilitaries, both fueled by drug money, still kills thousands each year and has displaced, according to UN estimates, more than 2 million people. But there has been progress.

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