Bush Welcomes Colombia's Uribe to White House
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is one of President Bush's staunchest allies in Latin America. Uribe is here in Washington this week trying to make his case for a free trade agreement and continued aid. That's a hard sell at a time when Colombia is in the midst of a scandal involving government ties to paramilitaries.
NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that Uribe faced skeptical lawmakers on Capitol Hill this afternoon, and angry protesters outside of Washington think tank.
MICHELE KELEMEN: President Alvaro Uribe seems like a man on a mission. He is determined to make his case for continued U.S. aid to fund Colombia's war on drugs and terrorism, and to persuade skeptical lawmakers his government is committed to the rule of law.
President ALVARO URIBE (Colombia): My first idea every morning when I get up is: My God, help me not to weaken the decision to defeat terrorism in Colombia.
KELEMEN: Uribe won a standing ovation during his speech today to the pro-business group the Council of the Americas, which was meeting at the State Department. The Colombian president was also welcomed here with a breakfast at the White House and a big endorsement from President Bush, who urged lawmakers to approve a free trade agreement with Columbia.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: The president is here to speak strongly about his record. And it's a good solid record. I thank the members of Congress for giving him a hearing. And we expect them to be open-minded.
KELEMEN: But the free trade agreement is in trouble. And Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy has put a hold on $55 million in aid to Colombia, about a quarter of an aid package, to help Uribe's war on drugs. Leahy says he supports Uribe's attempts to cut links to the paramilitaries, but he's not convinced Colombia is doing enough.
Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): I'm chairman of the committee that's provided $5 billion during the last six years to him. This is a tremendous amount of foreign aid. So I was been very supportive. But saying you're going to do it, and doing it can sometimes be two different things. And I think it's generally known in Colombia, there are still people with serious ties to the paramilitary.
(Soundbite of demonstration)
Unidentified Group: Uribe. (Foreign language spoken)
KELEMEN: Uribe was met with protesters outside the Center for American Progress, some were lying in body bags to protest the high number of trade union leaders killed by paramilitaries in Colombia each year. Uribe's motorcade swept past the protestors at first, but the Colombian leader seemed determined once again to get his message across. So he waded through the crowd.
President URIBE: May I give him an answer?
Unidentified Woman: Quiet.
President URIBE: What do you prefer, violence or debate?
Unidentified Woman: Quiet.
KELEMEN: One man held the picture of his murdered father. Others called Uribe an assassin and urged him to step down.
President URIBE: Maybe I have to apologize for mistakes but never for crimes.
KELEMEN: The Colombian leader rattled off statistics, as he's doing all over town today, saying, kidnappings are down and fewer trade union leaders are being killed in his country.
This is one crowd, however, he could not win over.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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