The Magazine

Bush's Colombia Deal

Will Congress give the back of its hand to a valuable ally?

Jun 4, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 36 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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When George Bush dropped by Bogotá during his recent tour of Latin America, he became the first president to visit the Colombian capital since Ronald Reagan in 1982. His brief stopover was mainly symbolic: a sign of the improved security climate and a tribute to Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, Bush's closest Latin American ally. Not that Bogotá is Peoria: According to the Washington Post, "Colombia put 21,000 police officers on duty, lining every road traveled by Bush and shutting down much of downtown." Even so, protests turned violent. Inside the Casa de Nariño, Uribe and Bush swapped praise and affirmed their partnership in fighting narcoterrorism. As Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue puts it, "They're the only two presidents in the hemisphere that consider themselves 'war presidents.'"

Educated at Oxford and Harvard, the 54-year-old Uribe has ample reason to hate Colombia's drug-financed guerrillas: They murdered his father in 1983, during a botched kidnapping attempt. First elected in 2002 as a center-right independent, he has lobbied hard for "Plan Colombia," the American aid package that has sent more than $5 billion to Bogotá since 2000. To Uribe's delight, Bush expanded U.S. assistance to include military support against the rebels, noting the blurry line between "counternarcotics" relief and "counterinsurgency" cooperation. The chief insurgent network, the Marxist-oriented Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, relies heavily on cocaine trafficking. "Without drug money," said senior State Department official Deborah A. McCarthy in May 2003, "FARC units would not be able to arm themselves and dominate the amount of territory in southern Colombia that they do."

They control less territory now than when Uribe took office. He has largely pushed the guerrillas and drug gangs out of the cities and into the jungles. Murders and abductions have fallen significantly, and the economy is red hot. Business Week reports that "Colombia's stock market has soared fourteen fold since October 2001. Foreign direct investment and capital inflows have more than doubled, while real estate prices have tripled in many areas." This "investment miracle," marked by 6.8 percent growth in 2006, cannot be divorced from the security gains. Retired Foreign Service officer Phillip McLean observes that "the murder rates in Bogotá and Medellín are now lower than in Washington, D.C." Uribe, unsurprisingly, is wildly popular.

Besides tackling the leftist insurgents and cartels, he has also sought to demobilize and curb the influence of right-wing paramilitary groups, many of which also deal drugs, while reforming a corrupt judicial system. Reliably pro-American--he backed the Iraq war but did not deploy troops--Uribe stands in sharp contrast with Hugo Chávez, the anti-Yanqui strongman next door in Venezuela. Now Uribe is hoping Congress will endorse a bilateral free trade agreement signed last November.

Done deal? Hardly. Congress is in a protectionist mood. And Uribe has lately come under fire for human rights abuses from Democrats, including Al Gore, who snubbed him at a Miami environmental forum in late April, and House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who publicly rebuked the Colombian leader during his U.S. visit in early May. Sander Levin, the top Democrat for trade policy on the House Ways and Means Committee, has fiercely criticized the trade agreement, citing labor gripes but also paramilitary infiltration of Colombian politics. Meanwhile, Senator Pat Leahy is delaying a portion of the Plan Colombia funding on similar grounds, demanding that U.S. officials investigate reports of "extrajudicial executions by the military."

What to make of these claims? In one sense they're old news: Uribe's domestic opponents have dogged him with such allegations for years. He previously served as mayor of Medellín, the hometown of the late drug capo Pablo Escobar, and as governor of Antioquia--a mountainous department in the north of the country that is fertile paramilitary recruiting grounds. Any Colombian politician who rose to prominence in that area during the late 20th century faced the constant specter of assassination by the cartels. And because the intertwined drug and insurgent wars polluted all sides of the political spectrum, some of Uribe's political supporters appear to have unsavory connections. The right-wing paramilitaries obviously share his goal of routing FARC.