November 23, 2007 / 8:47 PM / 12 years ago

Colombian Uribe boosts tough-guy image over Chavez

By Hugh Bronstein

BOGOTA, Nov 23 (Reuters) - When President Alvaro Uribe abruptly fired Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez this week as mediator in hostage talks with rebels it confirmed Uribe as the kind of tough decision maker most Colombians say the country needs.

A quick-to-anger micro-manager who takes charge of everything from army offensives to road building, the conservative Uribe took office in 2002 pledging to push leftist guerrilla rebels out of the cities and off the highways.

Chavez, known for hurling insults at right-leaning leaders, quietly accepted the decision that Uribe summarily took on Wednesday with a terse statement accusing the Venezuelan leader of overstepping his bounds as a negotiator.

The tactful response from the usually fiery Chavez is what Uribe, popular despite a scandal linking some close political allies to right-wing death squads, has come to expect.

Democrats in the U.S. Congress say they will not sign a U.S.-Colombia free trade deal because of worries that Uribe has not done enough to protect human rights in the country.

But in Colombia, the diminutive lawyer and farmer from the mountains outside Medellin is respected as a decisive leader who runs the country much like one of the ranches where he likes to show off his horseback riding skills to guests.

At one of his televised town hall meetings, where voters complained that a public works project was behind schedule, the bespectacled Wall Street favorite pulled his mobile phone from his pocket to call a Cabinet minister to express his ire.

The crowd broke into applause.

Uribe’s displays of anger seem to come from a place many Colombians understand as victims of a four-decade-old war. His father was killed years ago in a botched rebel kidnapping.


In August he asked Chavez to broker a swap of hostages, believing the leftist Venezuelan was the only one who could clinch a deal with guerrillas who say they admire him.

When Chavez asked Uribe for permission to talk with Colombian generals about the hostages, the Uribe responded with the humor he often uses to diffuse tension with the Venezuelan leader: "No, you might turn them into Chavez-followers."

But on Wednesday Chavez got on the telephone with the head of Colombia’s armed forces and asked about the kidnap victims whom Uribe wants to swap for guerrillas held in jail.

Canceling the talks ended the best hope for hostages such as French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, snatched during her 2002 presidential campaign, and three American defense contractors captured during a 2003 anti-drug mission.

While hostages’ families complained Uribe had lost his patience too soon, polls show most Colombians trust his handling of the rebels because of his success at reducing urban crime.

Colombia and Venezuela share a 1,367-miles (2,200-km) border and Chavez’s economic policies, which have reduced incentives for investment in manufacturing, have been a boon for Colombian business as exports to Venezuela soar.

"They have a pragmatic, mutually dependent relationship," said Rafael Nieto, a political commentator and former Colombian deputy justice minister.

"This is why Uribe is one of the few people in the world who can tell him: ‘You can go so far and no more, thank you.’ It is also why the response from Chavez on Thursday was so polite," Nieto said.

(Reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Saul Hudson and Vicki Allen)

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