Protests against Bush in Bogota

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

    George Bush is seeking to build US support on a
    five-nation tour of Latin America [AFP]

    It was Bogota's first visit from a sitting US president since Ronald Reagan in 1982.

    Bush went in 2004 to coastal Cartagena, always deemed far safer than the capital of the country afflicted by civil conflict for half a century.

    The president is at the mid-point of a week-long, five-nation tour shadowed by his nemesis in Latin America, Hugo Chavez, who is Venezuela's leader.

    Colombia is one of the biggest recipients of US aid and Bush's visit is meant to highlight security improvements under Uribe, the most US-friendly leader in the region.

    Massive security

    The national police chief has warned of possible attacks during Bush's trip, and a massive security effort has been mounted to keep him safe.


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    Manuel Cifuentes, a 56-year-old who runs a food stand on Bogota's Plaza de Bolivar, said "the security measures are excessive" and that he had not had much business in the last few days.

    The president will spend most of his stopover cloistered in the capital's Narino Palace, one of Colombia's most heavily guarded sites.

    But the White House did not say if Bush would stay there overnight.

    After meetings and lunch Bush said at a news conference with Uribe: "Your country has come through very difficult times and now there's a brighter day ahead. We have been friends and we will remain friends."

    Bush has indicated he will ask congress to maintain current aid levels to Colombia at roughly $700m annually to support the Latin American nation's fight against terrorism and drug trafficking.

    Cocaine 'war'

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

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

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

    Uribe wants the US to continue funding "Plan Colombia, the 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

    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 [instead]

    Sanchez said that as long as Uribe appears to clean up his political house and his popularity remains unshaken, his government will continue to serve a purpose for the US.

    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.

    'Bush is a bunch of paper'

    Uruguay is forging a new prosperity for Latin America, according to the politicians; 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 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 protesters 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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