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.
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.
Investigators have turned up hundreds of documents showing how a secretive group in the DAS, called the G-3, even tailed the children of human rights workers, searched through the bank records of targets and looked for "unusual behavior (vices, lovers, etc.)" by those who were under surveillance.
Gustavo Gallón, director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, which investigates rights abuses and has been critical of the government, learned that 30 agents were assigned to follow him, his two daughters, his parents and siblings. "This boggles the imagination," Gallón said. "They are following your children. What is the reason for that?"
Another target, Hollman Morris, a journalist known for his tough reports on Colombia's long guerrilla war, said he and his wife were stunned to read DAS documents describing how his two daughters, ages 8 and 5, were photographed by DAS agents. Ironically, Morris and Gallón had been assigned government bodyguards years ago because the state thought they could be assassinated.
Uribe administration officials have said the president had nothing to do with the scandal. But Colombia's inspector general's office is investigating three of Uribe's closest advisers.
Andrew Hudson, an investigator for New York-based Human Rights First, said the scandal shows that the president's rhetoric translated into a systematic policy designed to, at the very least, tarnish the image of government critics.
"The attorney general's recent investigation proves, for the first time, what human rights defenders have been saying for years: that instead of protecting them, the DAS engaged in 'intelligence offensives' against defenders," said Hudson, who has documented the imprisonment of rights workers in Colombia.
On Capitol Hill, an aide involved in Latin America policy said there is also concern about another scandal of "massive proportions" -- the killing of mostly poor farmers by Colombian army units in several states.
A special U.N. investigator, Philip Alston, called the killings a systematic practice by "significant elements" of the army. In a preliminary report, Alston said the soldiers killed young men and presented them as rebels killed in combat. Dozens of soldiers are under arrest, Alston said, but he worried that prosecutions could be thwarted.
The aide in the U.S. Congress, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly, said key lawmakers have directly raised concerns with Uribe and other Colombian officials. Often, though, the response has been defensive, he said.
"I see this as an indicator that they just don't get it," he said.
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report from Washington.