- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2008

President Bush yesterday harshly criticized Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for his recent actions toward Colombia, chargingthat his “agenda amounts to little more than empty promises and a thirst for power.”

Mr. Bush’s speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce punctuated a daylong White House offensive aimed at getting Congress to pass a free-trade agreement with Colombia.

The Bush administration has argued for the pact partially on the grounds that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe must be strengthened against Mr. Chavez’s aggressive attempts to undermine U.S. allies in the region.

Mr. Bushdenounced Mr. Chavez for the second time in the past week over his response to a cross-border raid by Colombian troops into Ecuador, which killed a senior Colombian terrorist in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Mr. Bush said Mr. Chavez’s ordering of Venezuelan troops to their border with Colombia is “the latest step in a disturbing pattern of provocative behavior by the regime in Caracas.”

“It has also called for FARC terrorists to be recognized as a legitimate army, and senior regime officials have met with FARC leaders in Venezuela,” Mr. Bush said.

U.S. government officials were in Colombia this week examining a laptop recovered by Colombian forces in the raid, which the Colombians say proves that Mr. Chavez agreed to provide millions of dollars in funding to the FARC.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Chavez have sparred in the past, but Mr. Bush yesterday went farther than he has before in slamming Mr. Chavez, though he still avoided mentioning Mr. Chavez by name.

“As it tries to expand its influence in Latin America, the regime claims to promote social justice,” Mr. Bush said of Mr. Chavez’s government.

“In truth, its agenda amounts to little more than empty promises and a thirst for power. It has squandered its oil wealth in an effort to promote its hostile, anti-American vision. And it has left its own citizens to face food shortages while it threatens its neighbors,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush said the trade deal with Colombia would remove tariffs of up to 35 percent on American goods being exported to Colombia, and would help Mr. Uribe’s government by pumping up its economy.

“As the recent standoff in the Andes shows, the region is facing an increasingly stark choice: to quietly accept the vision of the terrorists and the demagogues, or to actively support democratic leaders like President Uribe,” Mr. Bush said.

“If Congress were to reject the agreement with Colombia, we would validate antagonists in Latin America, who would say that the America cannot be trusted to stand by its friends. We would cripple our influence in the region, and make other nations less likely to cooperate with us in the future.”

The Bush administration is reportedly planning to flout congressional protocol and send the Colombian trade pact to Congress without the approval of congressional leaders, in order to make sure lawmakers put the issue to a vote this year.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, advised against such a move, but three administration officials defended the decision at an afternoon press conference, saying they have done everything Democratic leaders have asked of them.

“We have engaged for months,” said Christopher A. Padilla, under secretary of commerce for international trade. “What we’ve heard is, ‘We understand Colombia is an ally,’ so on and so forth. And then we say, ‘Well, what do we need to do to get this agreement the vote that it deserves?’ And we don’t have an answer for you.”

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