ON SUNDAY, George W. Bush will become the first U.S. president to set foot in Bogota since Ronald Reagan visited in 1982. It's a noteworthy milestone. Colombia, the top recipient of U.S. aid in the Western Hemisphere, is an important ally. Bush has rightly backed President Alvaro Uribe in his efforts to strengthen Colombia's democracy, and Congress should follow Bush's lead by approving the free-trade agreement the two countries have negotiated and by continuing to provide support to Colombia's military.
The timing of the visit is not ideal for Uribe. One of the most successful Latin American leaders in recent years, he was sworn in to a second four-year term late last year. But his conservative government has recently been roiled by revelations of links between legislators and jailed right-wing paramilitary leaders who turned themselves in under a controversial demobilization plan crafted by Uribe. In essence, the deal allowed those who had joined terrorist groups to lay down their weapons, confess to their crimes and be eligible for more lenient jail sentences.
The plan, coupled with Uribe's initial hard-line stance against armed groups on the right and left, has reduced violence. But a Supreme Court inquiry has led to the arrest of several legislators with links to the paramilitary groups. The president's foreign minister resigned when her brother was arrested; her replacement just emerged in January from six years of captivity at the hands of Marxist rebels.
This Andean nation of 45 million people defies the conventional (and simplistic) wisdom Washington usually applies to Latin America. The nation's violence -- financed, Colombians are quick to note, by demand in the U.S. for illicit drugs -- has subsided in recent years, but there is no minimizing the trauma of a decades-long conflict between well-armed insurgents and the state.
And yet Colombia's political culture -- its democratic institutions, civic society and independent media -- are stronger than those in most other Latin American countries.
Even the recent scandals are telling. Independent courts are holding powerful interests accountable, and the connected paramilitary leaders are being locked up. This is not the "banana republic" that some in the U.S. nostalgic for ideological battles over Central America want it to be.
Washington's "Plan Colombia," which dates to the Clinton years, helped the government take back remote parts of the country once ceded to terrorists. Colombia has been doing well economically, thanks in part to a restored confidence in the nation's future. Continued U.S. support will help the country stay on track.