Our man in the Andes?

Posted: Jun 29, 2006 12:01 AM
Our man in the Andes?

BOGOTA, Colombia -- President Alvaro Uribe returned from his recent overnight visit to Washington in undisclosed disagreement with President George W. Bush. The American president would like the newly re-elected Colombian leader to be "our man in the Andes," publicly standing up against Venezuela's leftist strongman President Hugo Chavez. That is not a role Uribe wants to play.

Bush was dissatisfied with Uribe's noncommittal reaction in the Oval Office when the U.S. president said he was counting on him to lead the struggle against Chavez. But Uribe has his hands full in the 20th year of his country's war against narco-guerillas. Nor does he want to exacerbate Colombia's often-turbulent relationship with Venezuela, second only to the United States as a trading partner.

On a continent where anti-U.S. sentiment has been rising, Colombia is America's most steadfast friend. It owes Washington for surviving the most serious Marxist-Leninist armed threat on the continent. Yet Colombia is not immune from the hostility toward the Bush administration that pervades South America. Furthermore, while Uribe wants to be Washington's staunch ally against drugs, he conducts his own foreign policy -- including a forthcoming visit to Fidel Castro in Cuba.

There are no illusions here about how much the Colombians owe to the U.S. government and its Plan Colombia to battle narco-terrorism. "Plan Colombia saved Colombia," one anti-terrorist military specialist told me, and I could find nobody here who disagreed. Colombia is wholly dependent on U.S. aid and, indeed, needs more aircraft and warships for eradication and interdiction of drugs.

The U.S.-Colombian relationship bears little resemblance to what it was when I last visited here 10 years ago. The Colombian government then was infiltrated by drug cartels, and authorities did not dare extradite drug lords. In 1996, a narcotics-connected Colombian president was denied a U.S. visa, generating an anti-American reaction. Bogota then was one of the world's most dangerous places, with abductions surpassing 4,000 a year. The communist insurgency seemed to be winning. The Clinton administration kept hands off this "civil war," maintaining it found no connection with narcotics trafficking.

In contrast, the Colombian National Police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration last week collaborated in a joint drug bust that was unthinkable a decade ago. It arrested more than 20 members of a heroin ring, centered in Cali. Five men seized in Cali were flown to Bogota in preparation to be extradited with two others to Miami. Extraditions, once resisted by Colombian prosecutors and judges for fear of their lives, have become routine.

Bogota, a city of more than 13 million, is not only safer, but sleeker. Its new mass transit system adds to a sense of prosperity and confidence that did not exist in 1996. Abductions continue to fall, to a projected level of 300 this year. Colombia must be considered a success story for U.S. policy.

The downside is that the U.S. government never has been so unpopular in traditionally pro-American Colombia, thanks to the invasion of Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison abuses and failure to agree on a U.S.-Colombian free trade agreement. Even so, the latest Gallup Poll shows disapproval and approval of the United States by Colombians at about even.

Anti-American feeling is surely not the reason Uribe hesitates to confront Chavez, even though Colombian police officials contend that help for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerillas is coming from oil-rich Venezuela. A U.N. narcotics control officer, whose vehicle was commandeered and destroyed by guerillas, told me "Republic Bolivaro" was emblazoned on the car of the FARC commandante. Enjoying bountiful narcotics income, the guerillas do not rely on Chavez.

With Colombians displaying their historic sense of superiority over their Venezuelan neighbors, Chavez is taken less seriously in Bogota than in Washington. It is felt here that he has begun blundering and is alienating even left-wing presidents. His failed intervention in Peru's election has made a bitter enemy of the victorious Alan Garcia, and Brazil's President Luiz da Silva has cooled on him. Even though Bush wants him to confront Chavez, Uribe will concentrate on using his overwhelming mandate (including an immense majority in Congress) to try to finish off the narco-guerillas.