Colombian Seeks To Persuade Congress To Continue Aid

Colombian Seeks To Persuade Congress To Continue Aid
April 30th, 2007  
Team Infidel

Topic: Colombian Seeks To Persuade Congress To Continue Aid

Colombian Seeks To Persuade Congress To Continue Aid
New York Times
April 30, 2007
Pg. 3
By Simon Romero
CARACAS, Venezuela, April 29 — Faced with allegations of government ties to paramilitary death squads and criticism from prominent Democrats, President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia is heading to Washington this week to try to unlock frozen American aid and salvage a trade agreement with the United States.
It is not clear whether Mr. Uribe will succeed, despite having the best relations with President Bush of any South American leader. Mr. Uribe boasts high approval ratings in Colombia, but a scandal over links between outlawed paramilitary groups and his close political allies has eroded his credibility in Washington.
“We need vigilance by our own government and assurances that our aid is not going to anyone linked to illegal groups,” said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who is the leader of the Senate panel that oversees aid to Colombia. After the Middle East and Afghanistan, Colombia is the largest recipient of American assistance, with more than $4 billion disbursed this decade.
Mr. Leahy put a hold on $55.2 million in military aid to Colombia this month while awaiting clarification on intelligence claims of collaboration between Colombia’s army and paramilitaries, which have been classified as terrorist groups by the State Department.
Both the paramilitaries and guerrilla insurgents have committed atrocities against Colombians and shipped large amounts of cocaine to the United States during an internal war that has lasted decades.
Mr. Uribe’s reaction to the scandal may have worsened his standing in the United States Congress since control passed to the Democrats. He has lashed out at domestic political opponents, saying he had placed opposition lawmakers who had met with Democratic leaders in Washington under surveillance.
Much of Mr. Uribe’s ire has been directed at Senator Gustavo Petro, a lawmaker and former member of the M-19 rebel movement who has pushed for investigations of paramilitary groups. In testimony before Colombia’s Congress this month, Mr. Petro asserted that paramilitaries held meetings on ranches owned by Mr. Uribe and his brother in the late 1980s before embarking on nighttime killing raids.
Senior Colombian officials and Mr. Uribe himself have vehemently denied the accusations. Still, investigators are looking into paramilitary ties of more than a dozen allies of Mr. Uribe, including his former domestic intelligence chief, who is accused of supplying the militias with details on academics and union officials who were chosen for assassination.
Mr. Uribe, who is scheduled to be in Washington from Tuesday through Thursday to meet with President Bush, Democratic lawmakers and human rights groups, declined requests for an interview.
Vice President Francisco Santos expressed concern that deteriorating relations with Democratic leaders could endanger advances Colombia has made in reducing urban violence, demobilizing thousands of paramilitary fighters and economic growth. “There is friendly fire from the Democrats of which Colombia is becoming the casualty,” Mr. Santos said in a telephone interview.
“We stabilized a country that was going to shambles,” Mr. Santos said, noting that Washington’s large assistance project for Colombia was conceived under President Clinton. Mr. Santos said paramilitary ties were coming to light because of the resilience of institutions carrying out independent investigations.
Mr. Uribe is popular in Colombia after limiting the reach of the war into large cities while riding an economic growth wave. “He received a country with 21 percent unemployment and today has it at 13 percent,” said Rafael Nieto, a political analyst in Bogotá.
Mr. Uribe’s critics say he is doing relatively little to move the investigations forward and ensure the safety of his opponents. Mr. Petro, the opposition lawmaker, said he had uncovered a plot to kill him led by Juan Villate, a security official for the Drummond Company, an American coal producer with operations in Colombia.
Drummond said in a statement that the accusations against Mr. Villate, who had previously worked as a security official at the United States Embassy in Bogotá, were “politically motivated.”
“I have had an avalanche of hostile actions against me,” Mr. Petro said in a telephone interview, adding that family members had also received death threats.
Human rights groups have criticized the killings of trade union officials and violations by Colombia’s armed forces, creating another obstacle to securing Congressional approval of new military aid and the trade agreement, which has already been signed by Mr. Bush and Mr. Uribe. Fifty-eight trade unionists were killed in 2006, up from 40 the previous year, though labor groups say government estimates of the homicides are too low.
“Colombia has no real answer to these killings,” said Maria McFarland, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Colombian business leaders argue that a trade agreement is needed to open new markets for Colombian goods. But critics say it could increase American agribusiness exports like soybeans, effectively restricting access to the important Colombian market for relatively poor neighboring countries like Bolivia.
The Bush administration, meanwhile, has requested $3.9 billion in additional aid for Colombia, which is still the world’s largest supplier of cocaine. John P. Walters, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, acknowledged in a recent letter to Senator Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, that street prices of cocaine in the United States had dropped more than 10 percent from 2005 to 2006 and that the drug’s purity levels had also increased.
Mr. Uribe’s unwavering support of Mr. Bush, meanwhile, seems to have won him little respect among leading Democrats. Former Vice President Al Gore, for instance, recently canceled an appearance at a Miami conference attended by Mr. Uribe because of concerns over the claims of his paramilitary ties.
Political analysts in Washington and Bogotá do not expect the United States to cut off aid to Colombia. Rather, they see Washington retooling aid to strengthen judicial institutions that carry out investigations while still supporting Colombia’s military. But to reach that point, they say, Mr. Uribe needs to aggressively advance investigations of the reach of paramilitary groups.

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