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Bush Hosts Latin American Ally At Ranch

Associated Press, Aug. 4, 2005

by Deb Reichmann

CRAWFORD, Texas -- President Bush has no better partner in Latin America than the leader of Colombia so it's not surprising that Alvaro Uribe was invited to see the Texas ranch where Bush likes to conduct homespun diplomacy.

For Bush, Uribe's visit on Thursday is a way to bolster the leader of a nation that is fighting terrorists and drug lords and working to build better trade relations with the United States.

For Uribe, the trek to Texas comes at a critical moment in Colombia where rebels, funded by narcotics trade, kidnapping and extortion, have been struggling topple the government and establish a Marxist-style state. Outlawed right-wing paramilitary forces also have been battling the rebels. The 40-year-old conflict kills more than 3,000 people every year, mostly civilians, with allegations that human rights abuses are being committed on all sides.

Uribe is meeting with Bush after recently signing the "justice and peace" law, which aims to dismantle paramilitary forces that also are heavily involved in drug trafficking and reintegrate them into the legal side of Colombian society. Critics say the new law goes too easy on criminals.

If official visits are evidence of the closeness of U.S.-Colombia relations, then it's clear the two nations are fast friends. Bush visited Colombia in November 2004, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Bogota in April, the department's third-ranking official was in Colombia last week and now Uribe's visit.

Uribe is hoping the United States will continue sending money to help train and equip Colombian police and armed forces to fight guerillas and paramilitary groups.

Their meeting comes just a day after the State Department announced that Colombia's government and armed forces have met human rights standards needed to qualify for full funding of U.S. assistance programs. Colombia has received more than $3 billion in U.S. aid during the past five years as part of an effort to wipe out cocaine and heroin production and crush the long-running leftist insurgency.

Congress imposed conditions on U.S. assistance to push Colombia to curb human rights abuses. Failing to meet the standards would have meant a cut of about $70 million, according to a State Department estimate.

Amnesty International USA quickly challenged the certification made by Rice.

"This decision is a major blow to the promotion of human rights in Colombia and is based on only the narrowest reading of the law and the thinnest of evidence," said Dr. William F. Schulz, executive director of the group.

The State Department insists that Colombia is making progress on the human rights front, although a spokesman, Tom Casey, acknowledged that "more needs to be done."

Bush arrived on Tuesday at the ranch where he will run the nation's business for more than a month. While he has a homestyle meeting with his best Latin American friend, a State Department official back in Washington is admonishing one of Bush's loudest critics in the region, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

Venezuela is destabilizing the border area with Colombia by supplying weaponry to the nation's oldest and largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Nicholas Burns, the State Department's third-ranking official, said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press.

He underscored U.S. support for Colombia as it attempts to defeat insurgencies backed by trafficking in illicit drugs. Burns expressed hope that Venezuela "will refrain from giving support to the FARC." Asked if this meant that Venezuela has been supporting the FARC with weapons, Burns said, "Yes."

The Venezuelan Embassy did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

During a speech on Wednesday, Burns defended the controversial "justice and peace" plan, saying it will help "dismantle the criminal structures of demobilized illegal armed groups, provide for peace with justice and permit continued extradition."

The initiative, however, has been sharply criticized by Human Rights Watch.

The Colombian government is allowing groups that have committed thousands of atrocities, including massacres, killings and kidnappings, to launder illegal fortunes and legitimize their political power, says Jose Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch's director for the Americas.

"The government's approach to demobilization allows paramilitary commanders to put on a show of disarming some troops," Vivanco said. "But the government has not truly attempted to dismantle their mafia-like networks, seize their illegally acquired fortunes or ensure a full cessation of abuses."

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