President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia is in a tight spot. As a staunch U.S. ally against terrorism and drug trafficking, he has stood firmly against the wave of anti-U.S. sentiment that's sweeping Latin America. The Bush administration has tried to bolster Colombia's loyalty by sponsoring the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement, but the Democratic candidates have denounced the proposed pact—and last week Speaker Nancy Pelosi kept the bill from being brought to the floor of the House of Representatives. At a World Economic Forum meeting in Cancún, Mexico, an evidently perplexed President Uribe talked with NEWSWEEK's Lally Weymouth. Excerpts:
Weymouth: Speaker Pelosi has effectively killed the trade agreement until after the U.S. election. What is your reaction?
Uribe: We cannot lose our optimism. [There is a] long tradition of good relations between our two countries, and we cherish common democratic values. Colombia is a country fighting for security for all its citizens and for transparency [in government]. It is a country with political pluralism that respects independent institutions. We recognize our problems, but we are working every day, doing our best to overcome them.
Haven't you stuck your neck out to be a good U.S. ally in the War on Terror and the war on drugs? Are you thinking about alternatives to your strategic alliance with the United States if this treaty does not go through?
We have considered that. As for the House's approval of the free-trade agreement, the sooner the better. The more they analyze the current situation in Colombia—the efforts Colombia is making, the progress Colombia has made, the problems Colombia faces—the more they have to rethink and consider the possibility to approve the free-trade agreement.
What would you say to members of the House?
I invite them to visit Colombia—especially Speaker Pelosi. If she comes, she will find problems and progress, but she will see our total determination to overcome these problems.
Are the Colombians upset?
There are people who are upset, but my duty as president is to solve the impasse.
Union leaders in the United States oppose the trade agreement because they blame your administration for the recent killings of four Colombian union leaders.
When my government began, Colombia suffered the assassination of more than 250 trade-union leaders per year ... Last year [it was] 26. This year, if we consider trade unions plus teachers, we have seen 19 assassinations ... But we are not happy—because we need zero cases. At this moment, Colombia has a program under which we protect 9,000 Colombians, [of whom] 1,900 are trade-union leaders. They are beneficiaries of this individual protection ... We have more than 130 murderers in jail because of the determination of our government … Recently we increased the payroll of the Justice Administration with 2,000 new staff members, who were hired as investigators and prosecutors.
The last time I spoke to you, in 2003, FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] guerrillas controlled quite a bit of your country.
The paramilitaries [controlled a large area] as well.
How much of Colombia is now under the control of your government?
At this moment, we have weakened all the terrorist organizations in Colombia—paramilitaries, guerrillas—we have restored law and order in the vast majority of our territory. They no longer have portions of our territory under their control, but they still have the power to harm citizens.
I understand that today you can walk down the streets of Bogotá safely. Five years ago it was far too dangerous.
We have seen the reduction of homicides from 35,000 per year to less than 17,000 last year, and kidnappings [have dropped] from 3,000 per year to 270 last year. Remember that before the beginning of my term, the FARC destroyed almost 200 municipalities. In the last months, they have been unable to destroy municipalities.
Why is the trade agreement so important to Colombia?
We need to give Colombians alternatives. One alternative is legal investment. The free-trade agreement is a way to bring much more investment to Colombia. Therefore, it is an alternative for my citizens to eliminate illicit drugs ... The other point I want to make is that the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement in economic terms is very tiny in comparison with the size of the economy of the United States. However, it is very important for Colombia.
To attract foreign direct investment?
Foreign direct investment and even domestic investment. The agreement is an example of other agreements that we are negotiating with Canada and the European Union.
If the free-trade treaty is ultimately rejected by the United States, will you turn to the EU and Canada?
No, no, no, no. We are negotiating this agreement, and we want these agreements [in addition] to the agreement with the United States.
But if you're turned down by the United States?
I cannot give space in my mind to the hypothesis that this agreement will be turned down ... In political terms, nobody can understand [why the agreement would be rejected]. Colombia has a long tradition of friendship and loyalty with the United States. Colombia shares the democratic values of the United States. Colombia has had difficulties with other countries because other countries did not understand the reasons for our loyalty to the United States. Therefore, I ask this question: given these circumstances, how can anyone understand that the United States does not approve this agreement?