Clinton to Colombia: We Will Stand with You

Associated Press + More

BOGOTA, Colombia — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that the Obama administration will continue to support Colombia as it heads for a leadership change amid tensions with neighboring Venezuela.

Clinton made the pledge in talks here with outgoing President Alvaro Uribe and the two candidates vying to succeed him in elections this month. She said President Barack Obama will continue to back Colombia's anti-drug and counterinsurgency programs no matter who wins.

"The United States has been proud to stand with Colombia and we will continue to stand with you in the future," Clinton told a joint news conference with Uribe.

She did not directly mention neighboring Venezuela, but two U.S. officials said Washington is well aware of potential threats to Colombia from Venezuela — as well as from Marxist guerrillas, drug traffickers and others.

"Colombia is the best judge of the threats it faces and the way that it wishes to go about meeting those threats," Clinton said, when asked about Venezuela.

Then, in an apparent reference to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, she added, "But I want to underscore for anyone who is listening or watching that the United States will stay a strong partner with Colombia in meeting the security needs that Colombia faces."

Uribe has accused Venezuela of aiding the FARC guerrillas. Chavez has said that a recent U.S.-Colombia agreement that gives the U.S. increased access to Colombian military bases is a threat to his country.

Clinton played down such concerns, and Uribe said the deal was completely "transparent."

The U.S. is trying to reduce the influence of Venezuela's Chavez, whose populist, anti-American policies and rhetoric have gained currency in the region.

In a speech Wednesday night in Venezuela, Chavez derided Clinton and the U.S. "empire."

"She's free to like me or not like me," Chavez said, breaking into a popular Latin American song with the lyrics, "But I don't like her either."

Colombia has received more than $6 billion in U.S. military and other aid since 2000 under Plan Colombia.

Former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, the apparent front-runner in Colombia's June 20 runoff vote, has expressed concern the program might be trimmed, but Clinton reassured him.

"The security threats have not completely been eliminated and therefore the United States will continue to support the Colombian military, the Colombian people and their government in their ongoing struggle," Clinton said. "There is no resting until the job is done."

She raised the issue of Colombia's human rights record, cited by foes of congressional approval of a free trade agreement with Bogota. She said she had discussed "the ongoing need for vigilance and commitment" on rights with Uribe, who said his country was making progress.

During her current Latin American tour, which has included stops in Peru and Ecuador, Clinton sought to overcome suspicions of U.S. intentions in several Latin American capitals.

During the Bush administration, several countries in the region began a tilt to the left, led by Chavez, and some leaders complained they were being ignored by Washington.

"I cannot change that and neither can President Obama," she said Tuesday in Quito, the capital of Ecuador. "Sometimes, we in America are accused of not paying enough attention to our history. But the obverse can also be true. Sometimes people are captives of their history."

"So let us resolve to meet in the present, to think about what we can do to understand one another better, to be more transparent to one another, to have candid, open exchanges of different points of view," Clinton said.