WHITE HOUSE— President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos have met at the White House to discuss U.S. security and economic assistance for the South American country. Obama also said peace talks with rebels are the right path for Colombia.
Santos has used his U.S. visit to highlight progress in peace negotiations with guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The United States has been supportive, and Obama spoke about the issue during his visit to Colombia last year to attend the Summit of the Americas.
The U.S. and Colombia have a longstanding security relationship, but the U.S. has been re-focusing it to economic and development assistance, and promoting human rights progress in Colombia.
Obama said success on the security front has made a wider discussion possible on cooperation in areas such as education and enhancing economic opportunity for Colombia's people, along with energy projects and technology.
He directly addressed what he called Santos's "bold and brave efforts" to bring about a lasting and just peace in negotiations with the FARC.
"It is not easy. There are many challenges ahead. But the fact that he has taken this step, I think, is the right one, because it sends a signal to the people of Colombia that it is possible to unleash the enormous potential if we can move beyond this conflict," Obama said.
Santos thanked Obama for U.S. support for the peace process.
"It is a process that is doing very well, and it is my hope this is a conflict that will come to an end. We have been shedding blood for over 50 years, and the support of the United States and the entire world is decisive in reaching that peace we all want," Santos said.
The Colombian president announced in November that he is seeking re-election. His opponent is a former Colombian finance minister Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, who has vowed to halt peace talks with FARC if elected.
In his remarks, Obama said he also spoke with Santos about efforts to improve human and labor rights in Colombia, saying this serves as an example for other countries.
Human rights organizations continue to be critical of Colombia and say government security forces, sometimes acting with paramilitary groups, and guerrillas are responsible for serious abuses.
In its budget request to Congress for the 2014 fiscal year, the Obama administration sought $323 million in aid to Colombia, a decrease of $61 million.
Aid to Mexico, another major regional partner, has also decreased, reflecting a shift in U.S. priorities as Washington increases funds for a Central America regional security initiative.