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Colombia: When Uribe Meets Obama

On Monday, the president of Colombia Álvaro Uribe will come face to face with president Barack Obama. The meeting is scheduled at a very sensitive moment for Colombia. Used to considerable familiarity with president Bush, Colombia is probably one of the few countries in the world where the election of the first U.S. African-American president was greeted with skepticism. The leadership of the country has been anxious to approve a free trade agreement currently opposed by the U.S. Congress. Colombians took offense for such resistance.

Domestic concerns urge Uribe to meet with President Obama; blamed for neglecting relationships with democrats, he needs to demonstrate to the country's leadership that he is in good terms with the Obama administration.

The anxiety many feel in Colombia about Obama is inflated. Beyond the rhetoric of change, the first months of the Obama administration have indicated a pragmatic and prudent approach to international affairs. Such attitude will guide also the relation with Colombia, an important U.S. ally in the region. Nevertheless, president Uribe arrives in Washington when grave scandals question his government. At a time when Washington is designing a new Plan Colombia, many elements may complicate the relation between the two countries: a second reelection of Uribe -- which he is strenuously pursuing; illegal wiretaps and surveillance of judges, journalists and political opponents by the Colombian intelligence agency; and the extrajudicial killings, the so-called "false positives," of hundreds if not thousands of civilians by the army.

The Obama administration, in continuation of the Bush years, vigorously supports the stabilization and reconstruction policy to consolidate former guerrilla dominated areas secured by the Colombian armed forces. The strategy mirrors U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. But it is very likely that if there will be a second reelection Congress will deepen its inflexibility, conditioning in significant ways the aid to Colombia. A new reelection sends the message that Colombia has no leadership beyond Uribe and that Colombia's democracy is after all not in optimal health.

Uribe will need to convey two messages to president Obama: that he renounces to a third term because the conditions subsist for a new president to consolidate Uribe's security policy; and that the so-called "false positives" will not fall into forgetfulness and impunity. The Obama administration has still not delineated in an accurate manner its policy towards Latin America and Colombia in particular. Apart from a photo opportunity, the meeting between the two presidents can turn into an important political opportunity. But much will depend on the message president Uribe will relay to the White House.