John R. Thomson

The Chavez regime machine is already laying extensive groundwork, contacting some 2 million Colombians living in Venezuela illegally, to offer them permanent residence, jobs and/or "settlement stipends" on condition they remain loyal to the Bolivarian Revolution.

Mr. Chavez has allowed the FARC to establish bases in southwest Venezuela, and residences for its representatives in Caracas. Mobile medical clinics have been sent to the Venezuelan"Colombian border, where Cuban doctors provide free medical services to thousands of Colombian campesinos in neighboring areas.

With Polo Democratico retaining political control of critically important Bogota at least through 2011, the 2010 presidential race becomes very problematic. Consider the following scenario:

Polo Democratico nominates a popular figure, such as former President Cesar Gaviria, leader of the Liberal party, to run in a united front.

The nominee receives the support of Polo Democratico's political organization in Bogota.

The nominee receives clandestine support from the FARC, long quietly Polo Democratico supporters, which retains strong organizations in several rural and southern areas of the country.

Hugo Chavez, who has said he would spend $5 billion or more in the coming election, provides a substantial amount to the FARC for "campaign expenses."

The FARC pays 50,000 pesos ($25) to millions who would normally have voted for an opposing candidate, or not voted at all.

While publicly denying the possibility of such a drastic change, respected political analysts privately worry that the above is indeed possible. Unfortunately, as they see no single, strong center-right candidate on the horizon, some have proposed that President Uribe be drafted to serve a third four-year term.

Such a development would severely cloud Colombia's great democratic achievements during the last several years, with detractors charging the nation's president had become convinced — like so many developing world leaders — he was indispensable to Colombia's continued survival. Rather, it is incumbent on President Uribe and like-minded leaders to select and support an equally incorruptible candidate who embraces solid democratic principles.

Many of Bogota's elites contend Polo Democratico cannot possibly succeed nationally, saying the citizenry would reject such radical leadership. They cite the generally conservative nature of the population plus the need for the winning presidential candidate to get more than 50 percent to win, which could mean a runoff of the two top vote-getters in the event of a multi-candidate initial election.

These factors, albeit correct, ignore another indicator: many 20-something Colombians are declaring support for the red-shirted, charismatic Mr. Chavez, who has a Che Guevara-like attraction for a cross-section of youth, a possibility many of the same leaders in the country's capital said could never happen.

The situation is further hurt by the failure of the U.S. Congress to ratify the free trade agreement that was signed by the countries a year ago. Failure to do so has played into the left's hands as proof the United States does not stand by its friends.

What does all this mean, potentially? Unless current trends are blunted, the western hemisphere's ongoing struggle to establish strong, viable democracies could well lose one of its greatest current success stories. In short, friends of a democratic Colombia — at home and abroad — must do everything possible to strengthen the country's institutions and support proven patriotic leaders.

John R. Thomson

Geopolitical analyst John R. Thomson has lived and worked in Arab and other Muslim countries for four decades.

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