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Interview with Michael Shifter, Inter-American Dialogue - 2003-05-01


Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was in Washington seeking U.S. support in the anti-drug and anti-terror fight in his country. Trade was also high on his agenda. Here to discuss President Uribe's visit and his plans for Colombia is Michael Shifter, Vice President for Policy, at the Inter-American Dialogue

MR. BORGIDA
And now joining us, Michael Shifter, Vice President for Policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based forum on Western Hemisphere affairs. Thanks for joining us, Mr. Shifter.

So far, so good for Mr. Uribe, you think, in town?

MR. SHIFTER
I think so. I think Washington really is impressed with a guy who has really taken charge in Colombia, who has the confidence and consensus of most Colombians, and is trying to deal with enormously difficult problems. And I think there is a lot of support for him. And I think both in Congress and the White House, I think people really want him to succeed.

MR. BORGIDA
That's what I was going to ask you. Oftentimes, when a visiting leader comes to town, they may be greeted warmly at the White House and not so in the halls of the U.S. Congress, and sometimes vice versa. But in your view, consensus at this point in time?

MR. SHIFTER
I think so. Certainly in the White House there is enormous enthusiasm for President Uribe. In Congress and certainly among some congressional Democrats, I think there is still concerns, and understandably so, about human rights issues and whether Uribe is really committed to seeking a political solution in Colombia. But I think people are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. They realize other options have been exhausted and he is fundamentally on the right track, although people are vigilant.

MR. BORGIDA
If you ask the average American, Mr. Shifter, to comment about Colombia, they probably think drugs and the drug trade there. That's high on the agenda. Is anything being done in town this week, in Washington, to address that?

MR. SHIFTER
Well, Uribe is coming with some good news to Washington, that he has reduced the coca production by some 15 percent in Colombia. Everybody likes that, but they don't like the fact that sometimes it's displaced to other countries, like Peru and Bolivia, where the production is going up. Which I think shows that you need a much more coordinated, multilateral approach to the drug issue. But certainly he is doing what the United States has wanted him to do. He's applying the formula of eradicating drugs. But the violence continues. And I think to address the drug problem, it is so complicated that you need a different strategy.

MR. BORGIDA
And it does remain in Colombia a bit of an insecure environment. We were talking about that with regard to Afghanistan, but in Colombia likewise.

MR. SHIFTER
No question about it. The armed actors are strong. If they are not financed by drugs, they are financed by kidnapping and other criminal activity. Uribe is trying to assert government authority. He is trying to strengthen the police, the armed forces, the presence of the state. But he has been in office eight months; this is a long-term proposition. It's not going to happen overnight.

MR. BORGIDA
Any symbolic value in the choice of Mr. Uribe to visit in the days and weeks really after the Iraq confrontation and so on? Usually the White House plans these visits very carefully, as you and I know, and one might wonder, has this country been chosen out of all of Latin America to send a signal?

MR. SHIFTER
Absolutely. President Uribe is the only leader in South America that supported President Bush and the U.S. Government in its position on Iraq. He did so, he said, [because] the U.S. has helped us, so now when you need us, we're going to be with you. And I think that's greatly appreciated, and I think he has been rewarded in Washington as somebody who stood with the United States.

MR. BORGIDA
This is politics, after all, isn't it, Mr. Shifter?

MR. SHIFTER
Yes. There is no doubt about it.

MR. BORGIDA
People get rewarded for helping.

MR. SHIFTER
Absolutely. His stature has been enhanced in Washington because of that.

MR. BORGIDA
Let's talk for a moment about the economic front, because that is a big part of his trip. What is he looking for and what might he get?

MR. SHIFTER
I think there was some disappointment, because he was looking for a bilateral trade agreement with the United States, and President Bush made it very clear that he wants to try to get a regional Free Trade of the Americas agreement and that Colombia would have to go into that. So, it's going to have to wait a little bit on the trade front. But clearly he has gotten additional economic support. He got an extra $100 million as a reward. That was included into a supplemental assistance package for Iraq. So, there is an increase in the assistance that goes to the government to help it fight narcotics and to try to control the violence in the country.

He wants also money from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank for social projects, as well. The country is suffering socially. Unemployment is high. And so he is also making visits to those institutions and wants the United States to put as much pressure as it can to try to give Colombia more resources to deal with the tremendous social problems that it has as well.

MR. BORGIDA
Michael Shifter, Vice President for Policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based forum on Western Hemisphere affairs. You got a primer there in less than five minutes on everything you need to know about Colombia. Thanks so much, Mr. Shifter, for joining us. We appreciate it.

MR. SHIFTER
Thank you. My pleasure.

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