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Colombia Deserves a Hand

September 29, 2004

At a time when good news from South America is in short supply, Colombia, of all places, appears to be on the right track. This is a noteworthy development for the United States, given Colombia's strategic importance. Despite Washington's all-consuming focus on the Middle East, a Bush or Kerry administration should make support for that nation one of its priorities in coming years. This means continuing U.S. support for Colombia's fight against the insidious alliance of drug traffickers and guerrillas, as well as the completion of a free-trade agreement with the republics of the Andes.

President Alvaro Uribe, who is visiting the United States this week and has been in office since 2002, deserves a lot of the credit for strengthening Colombians' faith in democracy. This at a time when people in much of the rest of Latin America, tired of rampant corruption and political instability, have become disenchanted with representative government, both in practice and theory. In truth, despite the savagery of the long-running guerrilla war that is financed largely by North American drug consumers, Colombia was never as hopeless a case as often portrayed in this country, given the relative strength of its democratic institutions and its vibrant civil society.

Like Bill Clinton before him, President Bush has been right to be supportive of Colombia. U.S. taxpayers have invested some $3.3 billion in recent years to help Bogota turn the tide against drug cartels and Marxist groups. The Colombian state has regained control over vast swaths of territory once ceded to the guerrillas in the mistaken belief that this might encourage them to negotiate. Under Uribe's rule, homicides have declined by 25%, kidnappings by 45% and terrorist incidents by 37%. The "narcoguerrillas," who just a few years ago were blowing up buildings in Bogota and firing mortar rounds during Uribe's inauguration, are now on the run. Coca cultivation is also down markedly.

These improvements in security have allowed Uribe's government to implement economic reforms that, according to a September World Bank report, have transformed Colombia into the second most improved country in the world in which to do business. As Colombians become more confident about their future, investment capital is flowing back into the country, which has a population of 44 million.

A free-trade agreement would provide Colombia's improving economy with an important boost. Uribe's administration has been a talented economic steward in trying times, and the president, though known as a hard-liner in fighting guerrillas, is engaged in devising creative anti-poverty policies, such as encouraging rural microfinance.

That is not to say that Uribe's tenure has been without faults, or that he is not supported by some less enlightened elements of Colombian society. A too-lenient amnesty program for right-wing paramilitary group members could have been better thought out, and Uribe has overreached at other times in his quest for security. Colombia is a worthy U.S. ally in a troubled region, and ongoing backing from Washington should stress the importance of continuing to strengthen its democracy.

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