April 30, 2007 / 5:23 PM / 13 years ago

Colombia's Uribe faces skeptical U.S. Congress

By Patrick Markey

BOGOTA, April 30 (Reuters) - Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a leading Latin American ally of the United States, faces a difficult visit to Washington this week as he seeks to defend his military and trade programs to a skeptical Congress.

Snubbed this month by ex-Vice President Al Gore and under fire over charges his allies colluded with paramilitaries, he must persuade U.S. Democrats to approve a trade accord and new funds to combat Colombia’s war and drug smuggling.

He is backed by the White House but a Democrat-led Congress takes a tougher line, wary over human rights and even more skeptical about trade deals signed by the Bush administration.

Democrats are likely to approve around $600 million a year in mainly military and anti-drug aid, but will demand more of that money is spent on social programs and seek guarantees Uribe is tackling paramilitary violence, analysts said.

But Uribe, who has never visited Washington with Democrats in control of Congress, faces a more complex task in securing the party’s support for the free trade deal signed with the Bush administration in November, they said.

"If you are a Democrat you want to position yourself to take a stand against the Bush-negotiated trade deals, but you have to be careful about being seen as weak on fighting drugs," said Michael Shifter of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

"He has a tough job because key parts of the Democratic party have concerns and they are being very careful," he said.

Democrats now chairing trade, aid and appropriations committees are questioning the record of a man whose country receives the most U.S. aid outside the Middle East and is also the world’s largest cocaine exporter.

The party is pushing for changes in the trade agreement that include an enforceable commitment to abide by core international labor standards, such as the right to organize and bargain collectively.

Critics accuse Uribe of failing to tackle killings of labor leaders and of collusion between his allies and paramilitaries tied with atrocities and drug-trafficking.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the powerful subcommittee overseeing foreign funds, this month froze $55 million in military aid to Colombia.

Al Gore a day later dropped out of a Miami forum with Uribe saying he was concerned over the paramilitary scandal in which eight pro-Uribe lawmakers have been arrested on charges they financed or backed the illegal militia gangs.

On Wednesday, Uribe starts talks with Bush and his trade team and with a broad section of the Democratic party leadership including House speaker Nancy Pelosi, senators, representatives and the powerful AFL-CIO labor federation.

CONFESSION TIME

Elected in 2002 and re-elected last year, Uribe is popular for his security crackdown that has retaken areas once controlled by Marxist rebels. Violence has dropped sharply and foreign investment is flooding into Colombia.

He also negotiated the surrender of 31,000 paramilitaries who were set up by wealthy landowners to fight the rebels and who often carried out massacres, murders and kidnappings.

As part of their peace deal, paramilitary commanders have begun confessing to crimes and investigators are uncovering ties between political leaders and militia gangs that human rights groups said were an open secret for years.

Killings of union leaders have dropped under Uribe, the government says, but critics say still not enough has been done to seek justice for murders and to protect activists.

About 4,000 union leaders, members and activists have been murdered in Colombia since the mid-1980s, more than in the rest of the world combined, the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center said in a report last year.

Rep. Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, said: "The violence against trade unionists, including massive murders, and the climate of impunity in Colombia are of very major concern as are the political ties of the paramilitaries."

(Additional reporting by Adriana Garcia in Washington)






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