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Colombia: Everything is better thanks to Alvaro Uribe, but…

Colombian Polls show Juan Manuel Santos (photo) is tied with Antanas Mockus.

Colombian presidential candidate Antanas Mockus was stumping in Manizales when lunchtime came. So he stopped at a highway restaurant for soup and fried plantain.

That once was perilous in a country where four presidential candidates have been assassinated since 1987. Things have begun to change under President Alvaro Uribe, who has a 63 percent approval rating ahead of the May 30 vote to elect his successor.

The U.S. credits Uribe’s policies to neutralize drug-funded rebels with slashing the number of murders to 15,817 last year from 28,837 in 2002. Candidates, while still cautious, now enjoy greater freedom of movement in urban areas, making the current race the safest in 30 years, the government says.

Mockus has gained most from improved security, said Monica Pachon, a political analyst at Universidad de los Andes in Bogota. Polls show him in a statistical tie with former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos as voters turn to issues such as education and corruption that Mockus stresses, Pachon said.

“There is a correlation between more security under Uribe and the people’s rebellion against fear,” said Mockus, 58, in a May 11 interview at the roadside eatery in the coffee-growing region around Manizales, accompanied by two dozen police officers and armored vehicles. “There’s confidence that things are better, so now people want something new.”

Uribe’s success stemming drug-fueled violence has also sparked economic growth. Under his watch, foreign investment for industries including coal and oil has surged to a record $10.6 billion in 2008 from $2.1 billion when he took office in 2002. Gross domestic product has expanded an average 4.6 percent a year, while the benchmark IGBC stock market has risen 10-fold.

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