March 04, 2008
WASHINGTON -- President Bush on Tuesday firmly backed Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a close U.S. ally who is locked in a fierce dispute with neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela.
Bush and Uribe spoke by phone earlier in the day to discuss a pending U.S.-Colombian free-trade agreement -- held up by Democrats in Congress for months -- and what Bush called the ``provocative maneuvers by the regime in Venezuela.''
Bush framed the free-trade deal as a critical national security concern amid a bitter showdown between Uribe and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a populist and outspoken Bush critic.
''I told the president that America fully supports Colombia's democracy and we firmly oppose any acts of aggression that could destabilize the region,'' Bush said, speaking on the White House South Lawn. He did not take any questions.
Beyond promoting the trade agreement, Bush did not say how the United States might respond to the escalating Andean crisis, with Ecuador and Venezuela rushing troops to their borders with Colombia and raising fears of the first armed conflict in South America since Ecuador and Peru fought a border war in 1995.
''I told [Uribe] that America will continue to stand with Colombia as it confronts violence and terror and fights drug traffickers,'' Bush said.
Since 2000, the U.S. government has provided more than $5 billion in aid to Colombia, mostly to combat drug trafficking.
Following Saturday's Colombian military strike inside Ecuadorean territory, Venezuela has sealed its border with Colombia and expelled Colombian diplomats in Caracas. Ecuador has broken diplomatic relations with Bogotá and launched an international campaign to condemn Colombia.
Colombia has retaliated by releasing information seized from the computers of Colombian guerrilla leader Raúl Reyes, including documents that suggest the group obtained $300 million from Chávez and was holding inappropriate talks with top Ecuadorean officials.
Some Democrats have said they will not approve the free-trade agreement until Colombia shows it can better protect labor leaders and labor rights. Colombia has argued the human rights situation is improving under the conservative Uribe.
Bush repeated pro-trade arguments he has made before, though the words take on a new meaning given the ongoing diplomatic crisis.
''The free-trade agreement will show the Colombian people that democracy and free enterprise lead to a better life,'' Bush said. ``It will help President Uribe counter the radical vision of those who are seeking to undermine democracy and create divisions within our hemisphere.''
''Our country's message to President Uribe and the people of Colombia is that we stand with our democratic ally,'' Bush said. ``My message to the United States Congress is that this trade agreement is more than a matter of smart economics. It is a matter of national security.''
Bush warned of the consequences of not passing the deal.
''If we fail to approve this agreement, we will let down our close ally,'' Bush said. ``It will damage our credibility in the region and we'll embolden the demagogues in our hemisphere.''