While the U.S. Dilly Dallies on Honduras, We Continue to Support a Right-Wing Thug in Colombia

With all eyes suddenly on Honduras over the expulsion of President Manuel Zelaya, few were paying attention when President Barack Obama quietly met with Colombian president and staunch U.S. ally Alvaro Uribe this week.

Protests over the coup in Tegucigalpa were met with spurious claims that the left-leaning "Mel" Zelaya was seeking an illegal re-election bid through a revamping of the Honduran Constitution. Meanwhile, at the White House, Uribe found himself dodging questions about re-election plans of his own.

Uribe knows something about changing a constitution to stay in office. In 2004, his powerful supporters in the Colombian Congress passed legislation to amend the 1991 constitution in order to allow the popular president to seek a second four-year term. Though controversial, the new law was upheld by the country's Supreme Court, and in 2006, Uribe won the presidential election in a landslide.

Now, Uribe is poised to do it again. While he has acted coy and evasive when asked whether he wants to extend his presidency -- a political cartoon in the weekly Semana recently showed Uribe calling a third term "inconvenient" while adding "but if the pueblo demands it, I will sacrifice myself" -- his allies in Congress have been working to pass legislation to grant him a third presidential run, through just the type of voter referendum Zelaya has been inaccurately accused of trying to carry out. The referendum would ask Colombians to vote on yet another constitutional amendment to allow presidents to run for a third term. Given Uribe's overwhelming approval rating, such a measure could turn out well for him.

It's an alarming prospect. Since Uribe's first re-election, reports have surfaced that members of Congress were bribed by his administration to vote for his re-election bid. The accusations add to a mind-boggling litany of charges against Uribe, whose government has been linked to right-wing paramilitaries for years -- and whose military continues to kill innocent civilians and then dress up their corpses as FARC guerillas.

Add to that a series of intelligence scandals -- including a wiretapping probe targeting politicians and journalists -- and one would think it might be time to distance the U.S. from the man George W. Bush liked to call "mi amigo."

Yet Obama greeted Uribe warmly at the White House this week, praising him for his "diligence and courage" and speaking optimistically about the passage of a free trade agreement -- a measure presidential-candidate Obama opposed on human rights grounds.

When a journalist asked about Uribe's potential re-election bid, Obama was diplomatic. "We know that our experience in the United States is that two terms works for us," he said, adding that he had advised Uribe that one of our "most revered" presidents, George Washington, had stepped down after two terms, despite being in a position to stay in power. But, he added, "each country, I think, has to make these decisions on their own."

For his part, Uribe assured reporters that "our democratic institutions are totally solid," at which point Obama added, to some laughter:

"… The other thing I should say is that if I were to serve two terms, I'm fairly confident that I would not have the 70 percent approval rating that President Uribe has."

With Zelaya in Washington this week, there are calls for the Obama administration to cut off aid to Honduras as a way to pressure the newly installed Roberto Micheletti to return him to power. (Currently, the State Department has requested $68.2 million in aid for fiscal year 2010 -- an increase of $25 million from this year -- for military, development and health aid.) For Honduras, the second- or third-poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, the impact would be severe.

Colombia, meanwhile, has for years been the largest recipient of U.S. aid in the region -- $6 billion, mostly thanks to the "war on drugs." While the Obama administration has spoken of scaling back military dollars in favor of development funds, Obama's meeting with Uribe this week inspired little confidence that any future aid will be contingent on a real improvement on Colombia's human rights record.

"I commended President Uribe on the progress that has been made in human rights in Colombia and dealing with the killings of labor leaders there," Obama said on Monday. In reality, a report by the International Trade Union Confederation this month shows that "Colombia remains the world's deadliest country for labor organizers, with 49 killed last year, up from 39 in 2007 but down from 78 in 2006," according to the Associated Press.

While the Obama administration is right to consider denying economic aid to the coup government in Honduras, the crimes and human rights violations in Colombia under Uribe should have sparked such action years ago.

As Uribe's allies in Bogota continue to pave the way toward a third presidential term, the Obama administration would do well to stop praising him and reconsider who, exactly, its allies should be in Latin America.


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