Bush, in Colombia, Promises More Aid
By DAVID E. SANGER and JUAN FORERO
CARTAGENA, Colombia, Nov. 22 - President Bush stopped Monday in one of the less discussed corners of the American battle with terrorists, promising President Álvaro Uribe that he would push Congress to add to the more than $3.3 billion that Washington has spent since 2000 to destroy coca crops and support Colombia's battle against Marxist rebels.
"This man's plan is working," Mr. Bush said, pointing to Mr. Uribe, who since taking office in 2002 has become the American president's closest ally in Latin America.
At a joint news conference in this port city, Mr. Bush cited the reduction in terror attacks, homicides and the production of drug crops as evidence that American aid, coupled with Mr. Uribe's steady hand, is helping Colombia turn the corner in its four-decade, drug-fueled conflict.
"My nation will continue to help Colombia prevail in this vital struggle," Mr. Bush said.
The four-hour visit was an addition to Mr. Bush's trip to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Chile over the weekend.
It was proposed by Mr. Uribe during a congratulatory call to Mr. Bush after he won re-election earlier this month, and was rich with symbolism for the Colombian leader.
While not mentioned publicly by Mr. Bush during his visit, the United States backs efforts to amend the Constitution to permit Mr. Uribe to run for a second term when his four-year presidency ends in 2006, a change expected to win support in Colombia's Congress.
Mr. Uribe's strategy over the past two years has been to fight Colombia's most powerful guerrilla force while co-opting the rebels' main adversary, a 15,000-man paramilitary organization, into disarming through negotiations. Both have been labeled terrorist organizations by the State Department.
The visit gave Mr. Bush a chance to trumpet what the United States considers successes in a bruising, if little understood, war just a three-hour flight from Miami. It allowed him to do so with a reliable ally in a region where anti-American sentiment is rife and which the Bush administration has largely ignored since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"For Bush, what matters is friendship and loyalty, and in Uribe he has a loyal friend, and there aren't many others in Latin America," said Michael Shifter, a senior analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy group that tracks the region.
"Bush doesn't have a lot to show in terms of Latin American policy, but Colombia can be seen as a relative success story," Mr. Shifter added. "It's a place where the United States has put a lot of money, and there are some positive signs."
But while an American-backed defoliation campaign has halved the acreage of Colombian land devoted to growing coca, the plant used to make cocaine, the eradication has not made a discernible difference on American streets, as Washington's drug warriors had promised.
Coca has instead spread from 12 to 23 Colombian states, which has made destruction of the crop increasingly difficult, said Ricardo Vargas, director of Andean Action, a Colombian policy group that monitors antidrug efforts.
"We are still going round and round here in Colombia," Mr. Vargas said. "So the question is how sustainable this fumigation can be."
Also troubling to some American members of Congress, the United Nations and human rights groups is Mr. Uribe's approach to disarming the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces, which exert great influence in much of northern Colombia.
It is a cornerstone of Mr. Uribe's effort to bring peace to this country of 44 million people. Critics say the Uribe government is pushing for an accord that would lead to demobilization but offer scant punishment for paramilitary commanders accused of atrocities and cocaine trafficking.
To compound the problems, Mr. Uribe's government also has to protect its southern flank, where the country's biggest Marxist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, has been relatively quiet in the face of aggressive army offensives but remains potent.
Wearing a Caribbean-style guayabera shirt, Mr. Uribe made it clear he had a lot of work to do.
"While the Colombian people fight for growth, employment and social justice," he said, "terrorism has halted our economy, it has made poverty more acute, and produced internal displacement and a stampede toward other countries."
Colombia's government, though, offers a largely optimistic future, noting that the economy may expand by as much as 5 percent this year, one of the highest growth rates in Latin America. Mr. Uribe's administration is now hoping to sign a free trade accord with the United States that the countries say will enhance commerce between them, now valued at $11.2 billion.
After Mr. Bush left for Washington, Mr. Uribe took the unusual step of wandering through the military officers-club-turned media center for White House reporters, encouraging them to write about Colombia as a tourist destination.
He wore a Boston Red Sox cap, in honor of Orlando Cabrera, the team's Colombian-born shortstop, who had also greeted Mr. Bush.
David E. Sanger reported from Cartagenafor this article, and Juan Forero from Bogotá.