- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

OP-ED:

Many people have told us over the years that you can read someone just by looking into their eyes. Today, the eyes of the citizens of Colombia tell a much different tale than the one of a decade ago.

Recently, hundreds of thousands of Colombians of all backgrounds and ages marched in the street to celebrate Colombia’s National Independence Day and to call on leftist guerrillas known as the FARC to release hundreds of Colombian citizens held hostage. It reminded me of a 4th of July parade back home in Illinois: marching bands and patriotic tunes with local citizens participating with pride.

It wasn’t always this way in Colombia. Not long ago leftist guerrillas were on the march, practicing urban warfare, setting off car bombs in city streets and occupying huge swaths of territory in Latin America’s oldest democracy. Right-wing paramilitaries sprang up to protect landowners under siege. Unfortunately, both groups devolved into narco-trafficking criminal organizations and democracy was in danger of being lost.

If you speak with average citizens as well as some of those displaced as a result of guerrilla activity, they have all shared tragedy. Even the current President, Alvaro Uribe, lost his father to the guerrillas and the former foreign minister was kidnapped and held as a hostage by the FARC for several years before escaping.

Today, kidnapping is down. Murders are down. Violence is down. The leadership of the leftist FARC has been crippled through military action and desertion, and thousands of right-wing paramilitaries have demobilized under a peace process created by the Uribe government. Most recently, the Colombian military stunned the world by successfully liberating 15 hostages held by FARC for years - including a former presidential candidate and three American contractors - without firing a single shot.

The national government’s presence is being felt in every municipality throughout the country. Mr. Uribe and members of his cabinet have personally conducted town meetings to respond to local concerns, something unheard of in most Latin American nations.

Fittingly, Colombians give credit to Mr. Uribe for their country’s turnaround. Mr. Uribe, once a little-known politician, is today the most popular president in the Western Hemisphere. Some opinion polls give him an approval rating of over 90 percent, an incredible ranking compared the U.S. Congress’ public approval rating of 9 percent today.

Mr. Uribe has focused like a laser beam on his agenda of Democratic security recognizing that Democracy cannot survive under assault unless it fights back and fights to win. He sought and capitalized on bi-partisan U.S. backing through Plan Colombia and today foreign capital is returning to Colombia in droves. The economy is experiencing growth rates of seven percent and poverty is down by 10 percent.

Leaders of the paramilitaries are being prosecuted, as are government officials with ties to the FARC, with the full support of the Uribe government. In fact, while the national government’s prosecutor is independent, Mr. Uribe successfully brought about judicial reform and increased the Prosecutor General’s budget by 75 percent, creating more than 2,000 new posts in January alone and directing the office to follow where the evidence takes them.

Labor leaders suffered during much of the guerrilla conflict and many died. Mr. Uribe urged the prosecutor to focus his attention on those committing violent crimes against labor leaders and created a special $40 million program to provide special security to Colombian citizens feeling threatened. Today, 21 percent of the more than 10,000 citizens receiving government protection are labor activists. The Washington Post recently proclaimed it is safer to be a labor activist than an average citizen in Colombia today. In fact, not one labor leader receiving protection has lost his life.

During my recent visit, I found it interesting that the only people denying the positive progress in Colombia today are Mr. Uribe’s political opponents who have been unable to defeat him at the ballot box. Every respected third party, including the United Nations and the International Labor Organization, tell us that today conditions are much better on Mr. Uribe’s watch, especially for the average citizen of Colombia.

Mr. Uribe recognizes that Democratic security also requires job creation and hopes to increase his nation’s participation in the global economy. He believes a U.S.-Colombian trade agreement is critical to the future of democracy in Colombia, and his political opponents seek the agreement’s defeat as a central part of their strategy of regaining political power. With the agreement, Colombia can attract the kind of investment it needs to reduce poverty and strengthen democracy.

Today, the people of Colombia are proud of their nation’s progress; they feel safer and more secure. They are making plans for the future. They have hope and you can see it in their eyes.

Rep. Jerry Weller represents Illinois.

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