Colombia's Uribe Faces a New White House Approach Toward Latin America

President Álvaro Uribe, right, a close Bush administration ally, is to meet with President Obama today. At left is acting Defense Minister Freddy Padilla.
President Álvaro Uribe, right, a close Bush administration ally, is to meet with President Obama today. At left is acting Defense Minister Freddy Padilla. (By Fernando Vergara -- Associated Press)
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 29, 2009

BOGOTA, Colombia -- In a White House ceremony in January, President George W. Bush awarded Colombian President Álvaro Uribe the Presidential Medal of Freedom and praised him for his "immense personal courage and strength of character" for taking on his country's fight against Marxist guerrillas.

On Monday, Uribe again arrives at the White House. But this time he will encounter an administration pushing to expand its alliances in Latin America and increasingly worried about Colombia's dismal human rights record, Colombia experts say.

Obama administration officials declined interview requests to discuss policy toward Colombia, a country that has received nearly $6 billion in mostly military aid since Uribe took office in 2002.

But four people who have met with policymakers in the Obama administration say the United States is concerned about the wiretapping and surveillance of Uribe's critics by an intelligence agency controlled by the presidency and reports that as many as 1,700 civilians have been killed by Colombian army units in what a preliminary United Nations investigation characterized as "cold-blooded, premeditated murder."

Administration officials also believe that democratic institutions are at risk as the Uribe government lobbies for a constitutional amendment to permit him to run for an unprecedented third term next year, said those who have met with aides to President Obama.

"I believe the Obama administration will question President Uribe on his human rights record and democracy," said one of the four people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "And I don't think they will either mince words or hold back too much."

Analysts say a new, more guarded approach toward Colombia is part of a wider policy designed to repair the tarnished relationships the Bush administration had in Latin America. The strategy hinges on showing that the United States is not solely preoccupied with Colombia, Washington's closest ally in Latin America this decade. Uribe is a conservative, openly pro-American leader in a region marked by leftist presidents.

"The way the Bush administration left it was that Colombia and maybe El Salvador were the only significant friends we had left -- the only two who would work with us on everything, unconditionally," said Adam Isacson, a Colombia analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington.

"One of the first priorities of the Obama administration was to increase the number of friends, and he's made overtures to Mexico, Chile and Brazil," Isacson added. "To Colombia, that's bad news because they become one of many friends, not the only friend."

Uribe is the third Latin American leader invited to the White House since Obama took office. The first two came from countries Obama has repeatedly praised, Brazil and Chile. Both of those countries have dynamic economies and governments that have initiated programs to deal with poverty. Colombia, too, is considered economically sound. Uribe's government is also popular here for putting rebel groups on the defensive.

But Uribe's seven years in office have also been characterized by scandal.

In the latest to transfix the nation, the attorney general's office is unraveling domestic spying carried out by the Department of Administrative Security, or DAS, against judges, opposition politicians, journalists and human rights workers. Four former DAS directors and more than 30 agents are under investigation, Attorney General Mario Iguarán said.

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