The Miami Herald
Fri, Mar. 26, 2004
Uribe sees Bush, hopes aid follows


WASHINGTON - President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia ended a four-day visit Thursday with an upbeat assessment of his country's progress against drugs, guerrillas and economic woes.

After his third meeting with President Bush in two years, Uribe said he is grateful for $2.5 billion in U.S. aid since since 2000, adding that the so-called Plan Colombia is helping to improve security and reduce coca cultivation.

Aggressive eradication efforts have reduced coca cultivation by 33 percent in the last two years, according to a State Department report released during Uribe's visit.

''These are credible numbers, but we are not bragging,'' Uribe told an audience at the National Press Club. ``These are just the first results, and I am not satisfied.''

Colombian officials said they also have high hopes for free-trade talks with the United States, scheduled to begin in May.

And this week Gen. James Hill, chief of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, asked Congress to raise the limit on the U.S. presence in Colombia to 800 military personnel and 600 civilian contractors. The current cap is 400 of each.

With recent Colombian advances against guerrilla groups, Hill said he saw a chance, with increased training and support, to ``deal a decisive blow against narco-terrorists.''

Uribe said that improved security was his top concern and essential to luring investment and improving democratic institutions. He quoted the former Socialist leader of Spain, Felipe Gonzalez, who once told him, ``Security is a democratic value.''

Asked about support for the U.S. war in Iraq, Uribe ducked the question. But he said the war is part of a larger global conflict with terrorism.

He faced critical questions on Capitol Hill about his efforts to make peace with several hundred members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, an illegal paramilitary group widely accused of brutality in fighting leftist guerrillas.

Several House members said the agreement could protect human rights abusers, but Uribe said he was trying to reintegrate the AUC fighters into society.