Assault on an Ally

Sunday, May 6, 2007

COLOMBIAN President Álvaro Uribe may be the most popular democratic leader in the world. Last week, as he visited Washington, a poll showed his approval rating at 80.4 percent -- extraordinary for a politician who has been in office nearly five years. Colombians can easily explain this: Since his first election in 2002, Mr. Uribe has rescued their country from near-failed-state status, doubling the size of the army and extending the government's control to large areas that for decades were ruled by guerrillas and drug traffickers. The murder rate has dropped by nearly half and kidnappings by 75 percent. For the first time thugs guilty of massacres and other human rights crimes are being brought to justice, and the political system is being purged of their allies. With more secure conditions for investment, the free-market economy is booming.

In a region where populist demagogues are on the offensive, Mr. Uribe stands out as a defender of liberal democracy, not to mention a staunch ally of the United States. So it was remarkable to see the treatment that the Colombian president received in Washington. After a meeting with the Democratic congressional leadership, Mr. Uribe was publicly scolded by House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose statement made no mention of the "friendship" she recently offered Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Human Rights Watch, which has joined the Democratic campaign against Mr. Uribe, claimed that "today Colombia presents the worst human rights and humanitarian crisis in the Western hemisphere" -- never mind Venezuela or Cuba or Haiti. Former vice president Al Gore, who has advocated direct U.S. negotiations with the regimes of Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recently canceled a meeting with Mr. Uribe because, Mr. Gore said, he found the Colombian's record "deeply troubling."

What could explain this backlash? Democrats claim to be concerned -- far more so than Colombians, apparently -- with "revelations" that the influence of right-wing paramilitary groups extended deep into the military and Congress. In fact this has been well-known for years; what's new is that investigations by Colombia's Supreme Court and attorney general have resulted in the jailing and prosecution of politicians and security officials. Many of those implicated come from Mr. Uribe's Conservative Party, and his former intelligence chief is under investigation. But the president himself has not been charged with wrongdoing. On the contrary: His initiative to demobilize 30,000 right-wing paramilitary fighters last year paved the way for the current investigations, which he and his government have supported and funded.

In fact, most of those who attack Mr. Uribe for the "parapolitics" affair have opposed him all along, and for very different reasons. Some, like Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), reflexively resist U.S. military aid to Latin America. Colombia has received more than $5 billion in economic and military aid from the Clinton and Bush administrations to fight drug traffickers and the guerrillas, and it hopes to receive $3.9 billion more in the next six years. Some, like Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), are eager to torpedo Colombia's pending free-trade agreement with the United States. Now that the Bush administration has conceded almost everything that House Democrats asked for in order to pass pending trade deals, protectionist hard-liners have seized on the supposed human rights "crisis" as a pretext to blackball Colombia.

Perhaps Mr. Uribe is being punished by Democrats, too, because he has remained an ally of George W. Bush even as his neighbor, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, portrays the U.S. president as "the devil." Whatever the reasons, the Democratic campaign is badly misguided. If the Democrats succeed in wounding Mr. Uribe or thwarting his attempt to consolidate a democracy that builds its economy through free trade, the United States may have to live without any Latin American allies.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company