Bush bolsters Colombian ally

US president arrives in Colombia but may not stay overnight amid security concerns.

    The US president seeks to drum up support on a five-nation tour of Latin America [AFP]

    Possible attacks
    Colombia is one of the biggest recipients of US aid and the visit is meant to highlight security improvements under Uribe, the most US-friendly leader in the region.
    But the White House is not confident that it will let Bush stay there overnight.
    The national police chief has warned of possible attacks during his trip, and a massive security effort has been mounted to keep him safe.
    Bush will spend most of his stopover cloistered in Bogota's Narino Palace, one of Colombia's most heavily guarded sites.
    "I've come to South America and Central America to advance a positive, constructive diplomacy ... on behalf of the American people"

    George Bush, US president

    In Uruguay on Saturday, Bush said: "I've come to South America and Central America to advance a positive, constructive diplomacy ... on behalf of the American people."

    He has been pushing a softer message of alleviating poverty in a region where the advance of democracy has done little to close the gaping divide between rich and poor.


    Reflecting Latin American skepticism over Bush's transformation, his trip has sparked street protests.


    Chavez has publicly blamed US policies for the deepening poverty.


    In Colombia, Bush is expected to focus largely on Uribe's fight to win Latin America's oldest guerrilla war and confront the cocaine trade.


    Cocaine 'war'


    Mariana Sanchez, Al Jazeera's correspondent, reports that cocaine is flowing out of Colombia like never before.


    Despite a so-called "war on drugs", the UN says a record 800 tons of the drug were exported from the country last year.


    Uribe wants the US to continue funding "Plan Colombia", a $700m fight against the illegal trade.


    Bogota has received more than $4bn in mostly military and anti-narcotics aid from America since 2000.


    Bush says he trusts Uribe, but continued funding of the drugs plan or approving a free trade agreement with Colombia are subject to US congressional approval.


    Some US legislators - particularly members of the Democratic majority in congress - question Plan Colombia's success and say paramilitary influence that has permeated Colombia's political system and some of Uribe's party members warrant more investigation before Colombia is rewarded with more US help.


    Colombia crackdown


    Security has been tightened in the
    capital ahead of Bush's visit [AFP]

    Since taking office in 2002, Uribe has sent troops to repel the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, the country's largest armed group, and disarm illegal rightist paramilitaries.


    Violence has dropped sharply, but Farc is still a potent force, mainly in rural areas.


    Pedro Medellin, a political analyst, said: "The Democrats are also questioning the use of drug fighting funds almost exclusively for military action. That's why Bush's presence is important for Colombians."


    For the United States, the ethanol accord struck with Brazil last week is only a first step in a battle over energy resources in the region.


    Colombia is also key to US interests.


    Medellin said: "For Bush, it's important to strengthen his relations with Uribe in the face of the construction of an oil pipeline that will transport Venezuelan oil to the Colombian pacific coast.


    "This will allow the Venezuelan government to sell the oil it sends to the United States to China."


    Sanchez said while Uribe appears to clean up his political house and his popularity remains unshaken, his government will continue to serve a purpose for the United States.


    She said: "Looking beyond the scope of an internal war of 40 years here, the United States seems determined to continue its funding to [Colombia], the largest recipient of foreign aid after Israel and Egypt."


    After Colombia, Bush travels to Guatemala and Mexico. Like Colombia, they are governed by the right, in contrast to a recent leftward trend in Latin America.
    Uruguay's trash collector

    Listen to the politicians, and Uruguay is forging a new prosperity for Latin America. But try telling Rafael Tejera that.


    His friends call him Chocolo and for 12 years now, he has earned a living for his family of 10 children by picking up rubbish and re-selling it.


    He said: "I earn around 160 dollars per month, sometime more, sometimes less, and some times nothing at all."


    Chocolo used to work in a steel mill, but that was before the international trading system bit into Uruguay's old economy.

    For Chocolo, Bush's visit, promising to help Latin Americans like him break the cycle of poverty, means little.


    He said: "It doesn't affect me that the government does business with other countries. This does not benefit me, but it will help businessmen and capitalists. I am not going to gain anything. So I could care less if Bush comes or not."


    At least for Chocolo and his family, Bush’s visit meant his business was looking up – at least for one day.

    He said: "Bush came, and the protester[s] left a lot of trash and good paper! It pays good money. I hope we have these kinds of visits all the time. That could be good. For me Bush is a bunch of paper. That's it."


    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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