WASHINGTON -- Colombia's avowedly hard-line President-elect Alvaro Uribe paid a low-profile visit to Washington last week that seemed successful but actually sowed suspicion. Meeting with Republican House members who will influence the flow of U.S. aid to Colombia, Uribe was asked two key questions. He responded with two disquieting non-answers.
The questions: Would Uribe have a place in his administration for Gen. Jose Serrano, the heroic former national police chief? Would he appoint to high office Pedro Juan Moreno, a shadowy figure who had run-ins with U.S. and Colombian authorities over importing precursor chemicals of a kind that produce illegal narcotics? Although the president-elect was non-committal on both scores, he implied there was no place for Serrano but there would be a prominent post for Moreno.
That dims hopes in Washington that the Harvard-educated Uribe is the leader to halt Colombia's evolution as a narco-terrorist state disgorging illegal drugs to the North American market. Uribe won a landslide election as a tough guy, promising to abandon the failed peace offensive of outgoing President Andres Pastrana and determined to defeat the narcotics-financed leftist guerrillas. Now, there is fear of a return to the "Boys of Medellin" and the corrupt regime of Pastrana's predecessor, Ernesto Samper. Now, it is asked: Who runs Colombia?
Uribe's victory tour of Washington last week, intended to build support for doubling U.S. aid to Colombia, was meticulously designed: no contacts with the news media and largely ceremonial meetings with senior government officials. This careful orchestration was disturbed, however, when he met behind closed doors on Capitol Hill with some 20 Republican House members belonging to the Speaker's Drug Task Force.
He called for resumed aerial interdiction of drug flights, and asserted it was "not time to worry about rights of delinquents; it's time for the rights of the people." After a congratulatory call from President Bush, he said he told his wife, "I've found someone even more hard-line than me." Eyebrows were raised when Uribe pushed "Drugs for Trees" -- paying each "poor person" $2,000 a year to plant trees instead of growing coca or opium. Nevertheless, the president-elect was doing well until Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia took the floor.
"What position in your administration do you have for Gen. Serrano," asked Barr, "after he gave you an important endorsement that put you over the top when you needed it?" Uribe replied that he admires Serrano as "an important patriot," adding: "I will consider his advice and will talk to him about his role in my government." That sounded like a brushoff for someone whose support saved Uribe from a runoff.
Barr next told Uribe: "We are concerned to hear that you are considering appointing Pedro Juan Moreno to be your national adviser when he has had his visa pulled." Tension in the room deepened as Uribe carefully chose his words. He said Moreno "was secretary of the interior when I was governor of Antioquia, and he did a very good job. I will consider your comments and make the right decisions at the right time." That, too, was a brushoff.
Uribe minimized the intimacy of his relationship with Moreno, his political alter ego, and did not mention Moreno's problems with the law. Moreno's GMP Chemical Products was listed by U.S. drug enforcement officials as the largest Colombian importer of potassium permanganate (a precursor chemical used in cocaine production). U.S. and Colombian officials seized three such shipments for GMP from China in 1997 and 1998. Moreno has denied the chemicals were used for cocaine production.
Reports about Moreno are hard to obtain from U.S. government officials. Republican congressmen cannot get straight information whether his visa has been lifted or frozen. In frustration, five senior GOP House members (including committee chairmen Henry Hyde and Dan Burton) last Thursday night wrote Secretary of State Colin Powell to find out.
U.S. diplomats in Bogota urged Republican staffers to leave Moreno alone, for fear of alienating President-elect Uribe. The Republican House members disagree. With the stakes high and demands for U.S. involvement rising, Congress should look more deeply into the new Colombian president's outlook -- beyond his hard-line rhetoric and his praise of George W. Bush.