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

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 29, 2009; 9:55 AM

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."

In a briefing for reporters late last week, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president will discuss the stalled Colombian-U.S. free trade agreement with Uribe, among other things, when they sit down together Monday afternoon. Obama said during the campaign that he supported the trade agreement, but that Colombia needed to take action to end human rights violations against labor leaders and others before the agreement could be ratified. The Oval Office meeting comes as the world's attention has shifted to Honduras, where the region's first military coup in more than a decade ended with the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya Sunday during a dawn raid of the presidential palace in the capital of Tegucigalpa. Honduras's neighboring countries have condemned the coup, in which military and congressional leaders installed legislative leader Roberto Micheletti as the new president.

The situation is the latest example for the new U.S. president of how world events can suddenly shift priorities. During his first European trip in April, North Korea's decision to test fire a missile abruptly put security on the Korean peninsula on the public agenda. Iran's disputed elections have pulled Obama and the White House into a back-and-forth with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad despite Obama's initial efforts to refrain from public involvement. Now, Obama's administration will have no choice but to deal publicly with the coup in Honduras -- including the pressure that is likely to build in the region for the Honduran military to reinstall Zelaya.

Obama's reaction to the coup, and his new, more guarded approach toward Colombia, will be calibrated to fit into what analysts say is a wider strategy to repair the tarnished relationships the Bush administration had in Latin America. The effort 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.

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