Few world leaders congratulated the “winner” of the recent fraudulent Iranian elections, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - and rightfully so.
But there was a notable exception right here in our neighborhood: Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez.
No real surprise. He’s the aspiring leader of this hemisphere’s anti-American left and has close ties to Ahmadinejad.
So, not surprisingly, eyebrows peaked late last week when Washington announced it was returning its ambassador to Caracas after his unjustified expulsion by Chavez last year.
It was even more striking considering Colombian president Alvaro Uribe will visit the White House today, the leader of a country which has been a staunch U.S. ally as well as a target of Chavez’s dirty dealings.
It’s well known Venezuela supports the FARC insurgency and allows Colombian drug traffickers to operate from its soil, while the United States provides aid to Colombia to counter both.
But putting Washington’s mixed signals to Bogota aside momentarily, President Barack Obama can do the right thing by reaffirming the importance of a close relationship with Colombia during Uribe’s visit this week.
And it makes darned good sense to do so.
Colombia has been the key to American regional engagement for a while now. It will likely continue to be so in the years to come if we play our cards right.
Just a decade ago, America feared Colombia would become a narco-state nightmare. Today, institutions are much stronger and Colombia is more at peace than at any time in recent history.
Bold Bogota policies - such as Uribe’s Democratic Security Plan - have beaten back both right- and left-wing extremist threats with Washington’s support.
The narco-terrorist group, the FARC, is on the run. So much so, they’re looking to regroup outside Colombia in Ecuador and Venezuela.
Coca producers are pulling up stakes too, for places like Bolivia, where President Evo Morales, a Chavez ally, has all but laid out a welcome mat.
Today in Colombia, democratic pluralism, security and prosperity are up; narcotics production is down.
As such, Colombia could be pivotal in the coming years in opposing toxic threats in Latin America such as anti-American authoritarianism, extra-regional extremism, instability and narcotics production.
Anti-U.S. leftist leaders in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia are consolidating power. Some are chummy with Iran, leading to concerns about rising Tehran or terrorist influence in the region.
Chavez is bent on a major, potentially-destabilizing military buildup. Russia has agreed to build nuclear reactors in Venezuela, adding to proliferation concerns.
Andean narco-traffickers run drugs through a security-challenged Mexico and into the United States.
But building on an already strong partnership with Colombia developed during the Bush years could do a lot to help counter these challenges to our mutual interests.
Of course, Colombia isn’t perfect. It must do a better job to protect labor rights, prevent violence against trade unionists and professionalize the military.
For its part, the United States should continue the security-related aid program, Plan Colombia, and move forward with a long overdue, bilateral free-trade pact.
Let’s hope the Obama administration doesn’t miss the opportunity to deepen a partnership that is already working to enhance regional democracy, prosperity and security.
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