WASHINGTON - Colombian President Andres Pastrana is back in Washington asking for a new infusion of U.S. assistance even though troubling questions of effectiveness and human rights violations hang over an existing U.S. effort to eradicate Colombian drug production.
Pastrana's planned one-hour visit with President Bush today is being billed by administration officials primarily as a two-way briefing and get-reacquainted session. The men met in 1999 when Bush was governor of Texas and were said to have gotten along extremely well.
But the meeting will amount to more than pleasantries. Pastrana, who has been in Washington since Saturday, comes with specific requests, and his visit is expected to focus the new administration's attention on what is likely to be one of Bush's biggest foreign policy headaches.
White House officials said Bush is expected to express new U.S. concerns over human rights abuses tied to Colombian army officials, as detailed in a lengthy State Department report issued yesterday.
In meetings with Cabinet officials and congressional leaders over the weekend, Pastrana has attempted to downplay the request for new aid. Instead, he has focused on developing better trade ties with the United States and is seeking Washington's support for Bogota's negotiations with leftist guerrillas who have seized control of large swaths of the country.
But new U.S. financial assistance is clearly on the table. In recent weeks Colombian Ambassador Luis Alberto Moreno has suggested that his nation needs another $600 million to supplement the $1.3 billion that Congress approved last summer for the United States' share of a $7.5 billion drug-fighting and economic stabilization program known as Plan Colombia.
A preliminary White House budget provides for an additional $400 million in fiscal 2002.
Much of that money would effectively cover funds that were expected from Europe and Colombia but never materialized. European nations have pledged only a little more than $200 million to stabilize Colombia. And Colombia, reeling from a severe recession, says it can't afford its multibillion-dollar share of Plan Colombia.
Although Bush has yet to appoint several key diplomatic players for Latin America, his administration seems committed to continuing support for Plan Colombia.
A senior administration official praised the Colombians' "forward movement" on drug eradication since the spraying of herbicide on coca fields escalated late last year. And instead of portraying Plan Colombia mainly as a way to stem the flow of drugs into the United States, as the Clinton administration often did, the official argued that much more is at risk.
"What's at stake here is the viability of Colombia's democratic system - not to say that Colombia's democratic system was in such hot shape," the official said. "What I think we're seeing ... is, No. 1, the realization that this just isn't going to go away," he added, referring to Colombia's deepening problems.
Some in the administration, especially Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, would like to boost drug-fighting aid to Colombia's neighbors to prevent a "spillover effect" if drug producers simply move across the border.
The bulk of U.S. aid to Colombia so far has been military, financing armored helicopters to protect drug-eradication efforts. Many Colombia analysts have argued that the Bush administration needs to devote more resources and attention to strengthening Colombia's economy and government.
"Just eradicating all that coca production I definitely don't believe will solve the problem," said Charles A. Gillespie, former ambassador to Colombia and Chile. "We have put far too much emphasis on the drug thing and viewed it as a drug problem rather than a very serious political, law-and-order, socioeconomic problem."
Pastrana has been in Washington since Saturday, working Capitol Hill and executive agencies and preparing to meet with Bush.
He has repeated earlier pleas to U.S. authorities to do more to decrease the United States' appetite for illegal drugs, and he has given new emphasis to Bogota's desire for lower U.S. trade barriers for Colombian goods.
Yesterday the State Department issued a scathing report on human rights abuses in Colombia, which many argue are fueled by U.S. aid. In its annual analysis of human rights worldwide, the U.S. government rated Colombia's rights record as "poor" and said that police and soldiers commit murders and that regular military units collaborate with right-wing militias committing abuses.
"There clearly hasn't been progress in human rights protection," said Robin Kirk, a Colombia specialist with Human Rights Watch. "To the contrary, there's been a deterioration."
Queried yesterday by journalists, Pastrana emphasized positive aspects of the report, such as those showing improvements in the court system. But, he added, "I think it is a fair report of the realities we are living in Colombia."