Help Colombia

Thursday, March 15, 2007

MUCH OF President Bush's tour of Latin America was haunted by what his administration has failed to accomplish during the past six years. In Brazil, the shadow was the absence of progress on trade between the United States and Latin America's largest country; in Mexico, the absence of immigration reform. The mood of the president's stop in the third-largest country on his tour, Colombia, was somber, too -- but, oddly enough, because of his policy's success, not its failure.

Since the beginning of this decade the United States has invested nearly $5 billion in Plan Colombia, a broad attempt to reduce drug trafficking and violence through military aid, economic development and drug eradication. From the beginning, skeptics in Congress have grumbled that the program was too focused on military measures and that it did not go after the right-wing paramilitary groups that were often linked to the military.

Now, at last, the paramilitary network in Colombia and its military and political alliances are being exposed and uprooted. Last year some 30,000 members of the right-wing groups demobilized under an agreement with the Colombian government; their leaders have been imprisoned and are testifying about their activities in exchange for reduced sentences. This flood of information, combined with parallel investigations by the supreme court and attorney general, has led to the arrests of eight congressmen and the former head of the security police, the indictment of a state governor and the resignation of the foreign minister, whose brother and father were linked to paramilitaries. For the first time, military officers are being turned over for prosecution in civilian courts.

Most of this redounds to the credit of Álvaro Uribe, Colombia's president, who pushed through the demobilization plan despite criticism that it was too weak. Mr. Uribe is immensely popular in Colombia because he has greatly reduced homicides and kidnappings while overseeing rapid economic growth. Yet in Bogota on Sunday, Mr. Bush found himself obliged to defend Mr. Uribe against criticism that the exposure of the right-wing networks reflects poorly on his government.

The critics might have a point if Mr. Uribe had tried to shield political allies from the investigations. Instead he has urged that the probes go forward and has apologized for his faith in officials who proved compromised. The revelations come at an awkward moment for Colombia, with Congress considering Mr. Bush's request to extend Plan Colombia for several more years, at reduced levels of aid, and a free-trade agreement with Colombia. Yet Mr. Uribe has not flinched.

Sure enough, opponents of trade agreements and those who reflexively resist U.S. military aid to Latin America are citing the paramilitary revelations as a reason not to support Mr. Uribe. In fact they prove that Colombia's president can deliver on his promise to reform the country's political system and extend its authority to a long-lawless countryside. If Congress wishes to see those changes continue, it should approve the new Colombian aid plan as well as the free-trade agreement.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company