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Colombian President Uribe Seeks Free-Trade Deal

May 2, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: In early March, during a five-country tour of Latin America, President Bush paid a quick visit to Bogota, Colombia, to show support for his closest South American ally, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: We believe strongly in human rights, human values, just like you believe in them. We’re two strong democracies, and we’ve got a lot in common and a lot of values that we share.

RAY SUAREZ: Colombia is the region’s largest recipient of U.S. aid, and Uribe’s landslide reelection last spring was a rare conservative victory in South America, where leftists had racked up a string of triumphs.

Since coming to office five years ago, President Uribe has waged a vigorous campaign to improve security, which is visible in Bogota and other Colombian cities. He’s insisted, in the face of foreign criticism, that he’s improving human rights in his civil war-torn country.

The government’s war against a left-wing guerrilla movement, the FARC, has lasted for decades. In the 1980s and ’90s, the FARC grew rapidly, fueled by drug money, extortion, and kidnapping. In response, paramilitary militias, with ties to the army, large land owners, and drug traffickers, proliferated. They’ve been implicated in thousands of deaths and kidnappings.

Recently, Uribe’s crusading image has been tarnished by a series of revelations and allegations linking some of his close supporters with paramilitary drug traffickers and death squads. Eight members of congress allied with Uribe are in jail on charges ranging from conspiracy to murder.

One of the eight was the brother of Uribe’s foreign minister, Maria Consuelo Araujo. She’s resigned. Their father is a fugitive, who is wanted for an alleged political kidnapping. The former head of the secret police is facing similar charges.

An opposition lawmaker has alleged that then-Governor Uribe let paramilitaries use his property for meetings and killings in the ’80s and ’90s.

Earlier this month, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont froze $55 million worth of U.S. military aid over allegations the head of Colombia’s armed forces collaborated with illegal right-wing death squads.

The U.S. has provided Bogota with nearly $5 billion in military and counter-narcotics aid since 2000 under the Plan Colombia program. Last week, State Department officials said a new six-year phase, costing nearly $4 billion, would focus on social, economic and human rights programs, while gradually decreasing emphasis on drug eradication and interdiction.

Meeting with President Bush

Alvaro Uribe
President of Colombia
It is very important for Colombia and for the whole region to get the free-trade agreement done.... [I]t is very important for us to promote high-quality jobs, for us to promote democracy, for us to promote freedoms.

President Uribe is now in Washington to personally lobby members of Congress and President Bush for more aid and to press for a free trade agreement. I talked with the president this morning after he met with the U.S. president, George Bush.

Mr. President, welcome back to the program.

ALVARO URIBE, President of Colombia: Thank you very much.

RAY SUAREZ: You had a meeting with President Bush. What were you asking him for, for Colombia? And what was his response?

ALVARO URIBE: It is very important for Colombia and for the whole region to get the free trade agreement done. We are expecting that this issue, the U.S. aid Congress will make in the coming weeks, it is very important for us to promote high-quality jobs, for us to promote democracy, for us to promote freedoms.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this a very difficult time for Colombia to come with requests to Washington? There are political supporters of yours who are in legal trouble. There have been allegations against your administration, even against you personally. Is this a difficult time to be asking Washington for favors?

ALVARO URIBE: Colombia has improved a lot. Colombia has made significant progress. When my administration began, Colombia have 68 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants. That year, we had 38. At the beginning of my administration, there were over 126 cases of trade union leaders' homicides. This year, so far, we have had one.

The country has made significant progress. At this moment, we are in the process to dismantling the paramilitary organizations. And our justice operates because of the support of my administration. And we have an independent justice.

Allegation against me, I have taken with me, these allegations, in the last 20, 25 years, because, long ago, I made the decision that Colombia has to destroy terrorism.

'American help is important'

Alvaro Uribe
President of Colombia
You could look at Colombia, that we are winning this battle in favor of our democracy against terrorism, against social inequality, but we have not won yet. And American help is very important for us to win.

RAY SUAREZ: One big change since you became president is that the Democrats are now in charge in Washington of the House and Senate. And one influential senator, Patrick Leahy, has put a hold on a large amount of money, as part of the Colombian aid package. What will you be telling Senator Leahy, Speaker Pelosi, about Colombia's progress to convince them that this is a good deal for the United States?

ALVARO URIBE: During my administration, I have come to Washington many times. And every time, I have spoken with Republicans and with Democrats. I have had the opportunity to talk to Democrats many times, with Senator Leahy, with the members of the House, because we think that U.S. aid policy regarding Colombia should be a bipartisan policy. And I have proceeded in accordance with this idea.

I have to express to every interlocutor in America, everyone in the world, that we are making progress. You could look at Colombia, that we are winning this battle in favor of our democracy against terrorism, against social inequality, but we have not won yet. And American help is very important for us to win.

Creating a 'trade balance'

Alvaro Uribe
President of Colombia
[W]hen you look at the bilateral trade balance, you find that, when you deduct oil, the balance between Colombia and the United States is against Colombia.

RAY SUAREZ: There's been, in some parts of America, growing suspicion of free trade agreements. Can you make a case for Americans watching this program that opening up a free trade agreement to Colombia is a good deal for American workers and American taxpayers?

ALVARO URIBE: We consider it is very important to approve this deal. Don't forget that more jobs we create in the legal economy, the less difficult for us to destroy illicit drugs in Colombia. Don't forget, when we promote exports, we can create better jobs, high-quality jobs, with affiliation to the social security system. Don't forget, we are promoting in Colombia freedom and social justice.

And when you examine, when you look at the bilateral trade balance, you find that, when you deduct oil, the balance between Colombia and the United States is against Colombia. To enter into this market is an opportunity for our country to try to create a balance and to implement our policies for better jobs.

Using trade to fight illicit drugs

Alvaro Uribe
President of Colombia
During my administration, Colombia has extradited more than 500, 560 citizens. And in those numbers, there are over 520 who have been extradited from the United States in this battle against drugs.

RAY SUAREZ: Today, a gram of cocaine in the United States costs less than it did when Plan Colombia began. If Americans buy clothing, and roses, and fruit from Colombia, is the kind of money available for those items enough to be a rival to the money that's available for producing coca and transshipping cocaine to the United States?

ALVARO URIBE: In the year of Plan Colombia, in the year 2000, Colombia have over 200,000 hectares of coca plantations. Last week, I was given the report from United Nations. The report says that, last year, we had not over 80,000.

It is still a great amount, but we have to think, what could have happened if the absence of Plan Colombia? And we have to consider that, if we have not won this battle yet, we are on the right way. We are winning.

And you have to consider additional facts. During my administration, Colombia has extradited more than 500, 560 citizens. And in those numbers, there are over 520 who have been extradited from the United States in this battle against drugs. Every day, we seize illicit drugs in the country. We cannot abandon this battle; Colombia can be a case of success.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. President, thanks for speaking to me today.

ALVARO URIBE: Thank you very much.

JIM LEHRER: To discuss Colombia, its politics and its problems, you can pose questions to two experts in an online forum at PBS.org.