It has been a rough year so far for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. On Feb. 7, the 15,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) detonated a car bomb at a Bogot? social club frequented by the country's political and business elite, killing 35. Then, on Feb. 13, FARC captured three Americans after their single-engine plane crashed. They were under contract with the U.S. government to carry out a survey of Colombian coca fields. Another American and a Colombian were shot dead at the scene.
These incidents are a direct response to Uribe's hard-line policies toward Colombia's rebel groups, which have been fighting the government for 40 years. But the new wave of violence is only stiffening the resolve of the President, elected overwhelmingly last year on a law-and-order platform. Uribe has an ace in the hole: the U.S.'s increasingly firm support. President George W. Bush, who phoned Uribe to discuss the hostage crisis on Mar. 3, sees him as Colombia's best hope for battling terrorism and the drug trade. Nearly all of the 500 tons of cocaine that enters the U.S. each year come from guerrilla-controlled regions in Colombia.
Under Bush, the U.S. is wading deeper into the Colombian conflict than ever before. Since Washington's "Plan Colombia" antinarcotics program began in 2000, the U.S. has given Colombia $1.9 billion in aid, making the country the third largest recipient of foreign aid after Israel and Egypt. This year, $651 million has been earmarked for Colombia. What's key is the lack of conditions attached to it: Before, U.S. money could only support the fight against the production and trade of coca. Now, Congress is allowing U.S. aid to be spent on training Colombian soldiers and police to fight insurgents. Since the September 11 attacks in the U.S., Washington has been ever more willing to help other nations fight their homegrown terrorists. Nearly 400 U.S. military personnel are currently in Colombia. Congress has authorized the deployment of 400 more civilians under U.S. government contract to chart coca plantations and report on rebel movements.
The cooperation is starting to bear fruit. The U.S. estimates that Colombian coca leaf production fell by 15% in 2002. And in December, the country's main paramilitary group, the 11,000-strong United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, agreed to a temporary cease-fire. In a Feb. 27 briefing to Congress, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Curtis Struble said: "We are making a difference, but the situation clearly requires sustained engagement." To prevent excesses by the military, the U.S. Congress has added human rights protections to its aid appropriation legislation. Still, some fear the U.S. will wander into a quagmire. "No one has really considered how big a job we're taking on," says Adam Isacson, an analyst at Washington's Center for International Policy.
Uribe is sure to apply more pressure. The 50-year-old former governor of Antioquia province stands in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Andres Pastrana, who acceded to a FARC demand for the creation of a demilitarized zone as a precondition for talks. Uribe rejected a similar rebel demand. Instead, he has signed off on an expanded U.S.-funded coca fumigation program. And he's moving ahead to recruit civilians as paid tipsters on guerrilla activities.
Just seven months into his term, Uribe has a long way to go. But 68% of Colombians back him so far. "For the first time in 40 years, there is a broad consensus that the guerrillas are illegitimate and must be fought and defeated," says Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogot?. Fought and defeated, that is, with Washington's full-fledged support. Tempers flared at a meeting of Arab leaders in Doha, Qatar, on Mar. 5 when Iraqi Vice-President Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri yelled: "Shut up, you monkey!" at Kuwait's Foreign Affairs Minister, Mohammed Al Sabah. Al-Douri, chastising the Kuwaiti for interrupting his speech at an emergency summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, also screamed: "Damn your mustache." Both phrases are serious insults in the Arab world.
The tense exchange disrupted what was supposed to be a day of Arab unity on Iraq. It also heightened tensions ahead of a key U.N. Security Council vote authorizing force against Iraq, expected in mid-March. Says a chagrined Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jaber Al Thani: "The Arab and Islamic world is divided." Polish Finance Minister Grzegorz W. Kolodko is facing an uphill battle to push crucial public-finance reforms through the Polish Parliament. The proposals aim to save $2.5 billion in state spending -- funds that would go toward an $8 billion kitty Poland must raise to be eligible for European Union subsidies after it becomes an EU member in May, 2004.
The unpopular proposals involve reductions in subsidies for child care, health benefits, and housing repair. Kolodko's job has been doubly difficult since the populist Polish Peasants' Party quit the coalition government led by the Democratic Left Alliance in early March. If Kolodko fails, he may be forced to resign -- and Poland's budget deficit could soar to 7% of GDP.