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Last Updated: Monday, 22 November, 2004, 22:34 GMT
Uribe, the serious man

By Bridget Kendall
BBC Diplomatic correspondent

President Alvaro Uribe
Uribe had pledged to deal with drug lords with an iron fist

With Colombia still one of the most dangerous places in the world for kidnapping, it might seem surprising that President George W Bush would risk a stopover there.

Indeed it seems his team decided against a meeting in the capital, Bogota.

They settled instead for a brief stop-over in Cartagena, on the northern Caribbean coast, precisely because of security worries.

A backdrop of 15,000 security personnel plus warplanes, battleships and two submarines is eloquent witness to the fact that Colombia's president may be George W Bush's surest ally in Latin America, but a visit to his beleaguered country is not something to be undertaken lightly.

You might expect, therefore, that President Uribe would want to highlight his personal rapport with President Bush. Not a bit of it.

"This is not a question of Bush or not Bush, " he told the BBC in an interview in Bogota last week.

"I was asked many times during the US elections - you are pro-Bush or you are pro-Kerry?

"And my answer was this is not a personal relationship. This is not a relationship between one president and another president.

"This is not a relationship between one political party and another political party. This is a permanent and very strong relationship between two states."

More funding needed

The main priority for President Uribe in this face to face meeting with the US president is no secret.

Leaving aside Iraq and Afghanistan, Colombia is the third biggest recipient of US aid after Israel and Egypt.

Plan Colombia, as it's called, has provided over $600m a year to counter Colombia's feuding insurgencies and the illegal drugs trade that funds the different armed groups.

Colombia still accounts for 80% of the world's cocaine supplies.

Colombian soldiers
Uribe's hard line military policies have exacerbated the violence
Gabriela C Flores, Denver

US aid has helped eradicate some crops, but has not yet led to a definitive decrease in the illegal drug flow.

Nevertheless, the funding approved by the US Congress is only due to run for another year, and President Uribe wants to extend it.

"Many countries express rhetoric help," he told us. "But the United States' help is a very practical.

"When Plan Colombia began, my country had roughly 180,000 hectares of illicit drugs.

"We are very hopeful that we will finish this year with no more than 65,000 hectares of illicit drugs.

"I have said to the members of the US Congress, please don't leave Colombia alone. Don't leave this job halfway.

"We will win but we haven't won yet. We need a second phase of Plan Colombia."

Impassioned politician

Alvaro Uribe is not given to small talk.

During the entire hour we spent with him there were few moments of humour.

Not because he is a dour or a dry man, though. It seems this is simply a man driven by the many problems that weigh down his office.

And given the violence that has held Colombia in its grip for four decades, it is quite a burden.

US President George W Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe
President Bush praised Alvaro Uribe's efforts against drugs
"He doesn't smile much and he worships statistics," one Colombian observer warned me.

Indeed, when he first entered the yellow state room in the Bogota Palace which we had festooned with the inevitable cables and lights of a television interview, he barely noticed us.

Some heads of state like to make an entrance that reinforces their sense of importance.

The president of Colombia did not seem to have that vanity.

The small, earnest man with owlish spectacles whose nose was buried in a small handbook of government data seemed more concerned with getting the latest figures and the correct translation for 'ransom', than making a grand presidential entrance.

But Alvaro Uribe is not a politician to be underestimated.

His answers were often impassioned, as well as precise, all articulated in a slow, clear English.

At the end of the interview he gripped my elbow. "Keep the focus on Colombia," he insisted.

"It is most important the world knows what is happening here."

Ask Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe
19 Nov 04 |  Have Your Say
Uribe defends security policies
18 Nov 04 |  Americas
Profile: Alvaro Uribe Velez
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Q&A: Colombia's civil conflict
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Country profile: Colombia
19 Aug 04 |  Country profiles

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