Nevertheless, the FARC and its sympathizers here and in Washington, D.C., detest the man because of his commitment to defend Colombian liberty. What they hate even more is his successful military strategy against what he calls "the nightmare of terrorism."
I ask Mr. Uribe how he has managed the civilian relationship with the military. "Our army has never had any willingness for coup d'état," he tells me. "But in the past they have tacitly expressed a need for leadership from the civilian government. In this, there has been one change. The president," he says, referring to himself in the third person, "is committed to security and from the very first soldier, the very first policeman, the president assumes all the political responsibility of military operations. Therefore our armed forces have seen a president committed to their task, supporting their task, leading their task, instead of firing generals." Mr. Uribe doesn't say it directly, but he is the first president to shun the practice of hanging generals out to dry whenever it suits politically.
A recent example: "When we made the decision to bombard [guerrilla leader] Raúl Reyes in Ecuador, it created diplomatic problems," he says. "And I could have said that it was a mistake committed by the military and I could have sacked some generals. I would have harvested the success of taking down Reyes and at the same time I would have avoided the diplomatic problems." Instead, he says, "I accepted the responsibilities."
Documents stored on computers captured in the Reyes raid revealed a close working relationship between Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the FARC. But so far Colombia has received almost no moral or diplomatic support from the democracies around the region. I ask why, but he dodges the question.
He will only say that in the past Colombia had not "strongly" requested that its neighbors not harbor guerrillas, which suggests to me that the problem predates the Uribe government. He says that his administration is the first to make such a request. The only country that has ever given the Colombian democracy "practical solidarity," he notes, is the U.S., "which put in place Plan Colombia."
That effort has provided important U.S. aid to the Colombian military, and no one understands its effects better than the FARC propagandists who've spent years trying to pin allegations of corruption and human-rights violations on Mr. Uribe in the hopes that the funding will be discontinued. The president doesn't bring this up. But he does remind me that, three times since last fall, the rebels have accused his government of deceit and three times, when the truth was revealed, they were caught in their own lies. "Colombia has proven its transparency," he says.
In Washington, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly claimed that Mr. Uribe's government bears some responsibility for the murders of Colombian labor leaders. On these grounds she has blocked a vote on the U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement, which is crucial for the country to continue attracting investment. The fact that the murder rate among union leaders has dropped sharply during the Uribe administration is an inconvenient truth for Mrs. Pelosi.
I ask if he is frustrated with the U.S. relationship. "I cannot get frustrated," he says softly, "because we have to work as hard as we can every day. We have received a lot of support from the U.S. – from the government, from Congress, from the media and from many sectors of public opinion." He is keenly aware of the November elections. "It is very important to remember in this moment that Colombia has always had a bipartisan approach to our U.S. relationship" and he says that when it comes to correcting the country's mistakes, the FTA will be helpful. But Colombia also wants "the recognition of what we have achieved. I hope that any day the FTA will be approved."
Not that he's depending on that as his only option for progress. Mr. Uribe keeps a punishing schedule, traveling the country every week to some of the most remote municipalities, where he spends hours listening to the locals. Colombians regularly remind me that never has a president known the country the way he does or connected with the people the way he has.
"Modern democracies need both representation and participation. If you appeal exclusively to representation you run the risk of distorting reality," Mr. Uribe says. Translation: He is not willing to let special-interest politics in Colombia's Congress block his agenda; he takes his message straight to the people.
This has added to his popularity. In the center of Bogotá the day before we talked, I passed some of his supporters collecting signatures for a referendum that would allow him to run for a third term. But what about claims that he has replaced Colombian institutions with himself, and that efforts to change the law so he can run again for president prove it?
Our institutions are strong and we have checks and balances," he replies. "But in the past the country has never had the right policies with the determination to defeat criminals and attract investment. My concern is that these policies continue."
There is a lot of work to be done before his current term ends in August 2010. For one, FARC hostages are still rotting in the jungle. I ask him whether anything can be done to break the deadlock. "Of course," he says, proceeding to rattle off the efforts his government has already made – from the June 2007 release of rebel leader Rodrigo Granda at the request of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and the unilateral release of 127 members of the FARC, to granting Mr. Chávez a mediator role in October. More recently, he adds, "We have allowed delegates from Spain, France and Switzerland to have contact with the FARC and we have accepted the idea of a meeting zone proposed by the Catholic Church."
The trouble is that the key rebel demand is a demilitarized zone such as they enjoyed during the last dialogue for peace. For Mr. Uribe this is not negotiable.
So will he run for a third term in order to preserve his policy agenda for another four years? I don't get a yes or no, only this: "I want the country to have strong leaders who will prolong our policies. I want many strong leaders. But," he says standing briefly and looking down at me, "I won't abandon our people."