Hugo Chavez Looms Large over Colombia Election

Article excerpt

As voters line up for today's Colombia election, many will cast their ballots based on how the candidates will handle strained relations with neighboring Venezuela and its fiery leftist leader, Hugo Chavez.

Try as candidates might to keep Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his politics out of their domestic elections, he always seems to be a factor in voters' minds across Latin America. Today's Colombia election is no different.

In presidential elections Sunday, some Colombians say they are voting for Juan Manuel Santos, the former defense minister and ally of outgoing conservative President Alvaro Uribe - Mr. Chavez's No. 1 foe in the region - because they say if Mr. Santos wins, he will stand tough against what they see as Chavez's aggressions.

Others want Green party candidate Antanas Mockus to win because they fear a Santos victory will heighten tensions between Colombia and Venezuela.

But the outcome of the race, which polls indicate will most likely go into runoff between Mr. Mockus and Santos, will not have foreign policy implications for neighboring Venezuela alone.

Both candidates are promising to stand tough against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and carry on with the free trade principles espoused by President Uribe. But as Santos represents continuity with Uribe, he comes with the baggage that the president has amassed, making foes of both Chavez and his allies in the region, as well as Democrats in the US. A Mockus victory, meanwhile, might worry conservatives in Washington, but it could go a long way toward healing greater divisions in Latin America.

"I think that Mockus has a goal, and it's to return Colombia to Latin America," says Laura Gil, a columnist and political analyst in Bogota. With Chavez, she says, "the geopolitical facts remain. No one is going to change Chavez's mind. ... But it could mean a gentler relationship with Mockus, one that is not that costly."

Staunch US ally

Under Uribe, a right-wing president in a continent where the left has dominated over the past decade, Colombia became a staunch ally of the US, which lent it $6 billion in anti-narcotics aid and helped Uribe fight back guerrillas. He is widely popular within Colombia.

But outside his own country, his policies have angered neighbors. Colombia faced tough questions after it announced cooperation with a US plan to increase its access to military bases in the country. …