BOGOTA, Colombia—Colombia, a grateful recipient of $700 million a year in U.S. aid to fight drugs and guerrillas, rolled out a red carpet and a military honor guard for a brief but important visit by President Bush Sunday as protesters once again took to the streets in a violent demonstration.
Bush is in the middle of a five-nation Latin American tour designed to counter the growing influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and improve the president's image in a region that feels forgotten since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Yet, ironically, Bush could not bring good news even here, Washington's tightest Latin American ally. A bilateral free trade pact is stalled in the Democrat-controlled Congress and U.S. aid is to diminish slightly next year even as President Alvaro Uribe suffers through a major scandal over government links to right-wing paramilitaries.
The U.S. aid has helped Colombia launch and sustain an offensive against drug traffickers, leftist guerrillas and the paramilitaries. It has brought a measure of security, a 65 percent approval rating for Uribe and much economic progress to a country where only a few years ago Bogota residents feared driving into the countryside on weekends.
However, even here Bush had a mixed welcome, with 1,500 protesters, including students, labor activists and opposition political groups gathered to taunt the president's 70-car caravan as it headed to the Narino presidential palace. Some protesters threw rocks at police, who fired back tear gas. Thirty-five people were reported arrested and one policeman injured.
"He wants us all to get on our knees for him," said Luz Marina Carrillos, a 45-year old accountant who took part in the protest.
Thousands of troops and police blanketed the city, sharpshooters took to the roofs and helicopters dotted the sky to ensure that Bush's six-hour stop would not be targeted by leftist guerrillas. In 2002, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, fired homemade mortars at Uribe's presidential inauguration, killing 23 people.
Bush—who flew on later to Guatemala rather than spend the night here—and Uribe discussed the free trade agreement, three U.S. defense contractors held captive for four years by the FARC and Plan Colombia II, a $43 billion six-year plan to fight drugs and guerrillas that follows a plan by the same name launched in 2000.
Colombia expects to receive about $600 million from Washington this year, and Bush said that he is confident the Uribe government is searching for ways to free the contractors. The government and the FARC have tried but failed to negotiate a prisoner swap, but Bush made no direct reference to a possible rescue attempt.
"He's developing strategies that will hopefully bring them out safely," Bush said in a joint news conference with Uribe. The contractors were captured after their plane crashed in a FARC stronghold in southern Colombia in February 2003.
Debate has swirled in recent weeks about possible military rescue operations, which are risky and have led to deaths of high-level captives in the past.
The two presidents also talked about the scandal that has linked several members of Uribe's government in recent weeks to the notoriously murderous paramilitaries. His foreign minister was forced to resign after her brother and father were linked to the scandal, and his handpicked intelligence coordinator is in jail on similar charges.
"I appreciate the president's determination to bring human rights violators to justice," Bush said. "There's no political favorites when it comes to justice; that if someone's guilty, they will pay a penalty."
The paramilitaries have been held responsible for the majority of assassinations of union leaders here, which have made Colombia the most dangerous place in the world to be a labor activist and undermined U.S. congressional support for the free trade agreement.
"The world should know that this government has taken the decision to open the door for justice," said Uribe, adding that his government has jailed several top paramilitary leaders and negotiated the surrender of some 30,000 fighters.
Bush said he expected that the Uribe administration will get a chance to argue its case in front of Congress soon.
The Bush tour, which ends with a two-day stop in Mexico, has produced more symbolism than substance as he tries to counterbalance the growing influence of Chavez in the region.
Chavez has spent billions of dollars from his burgeoning oil revenue on social programs at home and abroad, and politicians sympathetic to Chavez have won presidential campaigns in Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador.
The Venezuelan president has been touring parts of the region in tandem with Bush, taunting the U.S. president every chance he gets.
"The Empire is striking back," he said on Sunday to Bolivians gathered in the city of El Alto. "Why? Because he realizes that Latin America is making strong, serious strides."
Chavez continues his counter-Bush tour this week with visits to Nicaragua and Haiti.
Bush has refused to mention Chavez by name but has had to deal with questions about the tough-talking Venezuelan throughout the trip, which started with stops in Brazil and Uruguay.
In Brazil, Bush signed an accord to push for more biofuels with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, but the two also openly sparred on tariff issues. In Uruguay, President Tabare Vazquez, challenged Bush to open the United States up for beef and textile imports.
The conservative Uribe also has to contend with Chavez, his neighbor and principal trading partner after the United States. But Bush showed his appreciation for his host.
"I'm proud to call you a personal friend and a strategic partner of the U.S.," Bush told Uribe.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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