President Bush traveled to Colombia Sunday amid tight security in a show of support for President Alvaro Uribe, VOA's Paula Wolfson reports from Bogota the short visit was long on symbolism.
President Bush came to Bogota at a critical time. President Uribe, his strongest ally in the region, is dealing with a political scandal involving members of his inner circle. And in Washington, Democrats in the U.S. Congress are questioning the Bush administration's request for billions of dollars over the next few years in additional aid to Colombia, which remains the world's largest producer of cocaine.
Mr. Bush says "Plan Colombia" - the program set up to battle narco-terrorists - is worthy of continued U.S. support. And he stressed he has confidence in President Uribe.
"You have set high expectations for your nation," said President Bush. "I appreciate your determination. And I am proud to call you a personal friend, and call your country a strategic partner of the United States."
During a joint news conference, Mr. Bush spoke directly about the political scandal that has rocked Colombia - the revelation that some of President Uribe's allies had ties to paramilitary commanders.
"I support a plan that says there will be an independent judiciary analyzing any charge brought forth and when someone is found guilty there will be punishment," he said. "That is the kind of plan I support. And it happens to be the kind of plan the president supports."
Mr. Uribe said the prosecutions, trials and sentences handed down are proof of just how far Colombia has come in its fight against insurgents and drug lords.
"Instead of being afraid of telling the truth, we have been supporting truth," said Alvaro Uribe. "Instead of looking for ways out of justice, we are trying to support justice as much as possible."
Mr. Bush is the first U.S. president to visit Bogota in a quarter century. Security was extremely tight for his visit with more than 20,000 police deployed in the city. They stood just a few meters apart, lining his motorcade route. And the entire visit - which lasted less than seven hours - played out largely in the confines of Colombia's presidential palace and an adjacent city square that was closed to the public.
Mr. Bush received a red-carpet welcome in the square. But there was also a raucous welcome from protesters - including one group that clashed with police within sight of his motorcade.
President Bush's critics here in Colombia charge the United States is putting too much money into military aid and not enough into funding programs to help the poor and the disadvantaged.
Before leaving Washington, Mr. Bush announced an increase in U.S. funds to help meet basic needs in Latin America, such as housing, health care and education. Colombia remains the largest U.S. aid recipient in the region and one of the largest in the world, just behind the Middle East and Afghanistan. Most of the American assistance funds that go to Bogota - about 70 percent - are targeted for Plan Colombia.