BOGOTA, Colombia — The U.S. Congress is refusing to ratify the Colombian free-trade agreement and there is talk of reducing military aid to Bogota—a signal that has been interpreted by the enemies of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, including Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, as the beginning of the decline of this once invincible leader.

I recently talked to Uribe in Bogota, and mentioned one of the arguments against him—the ties between politicians close to his government and the right-wing paramilitary umbrella group known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC for its Spanish acronym.

“Under my government,” Uribe responded, “46,000 armed men and women have been demobilized, 33,000 of them right-wing paramilitaries. The information that has come out in connection to the ties you mention resulted from this process. Now the judiciary is doing its job.”

But isn’t the fact that the right-wing paramilitaries penetrated Colombia’s institutions an indictment of the government? “The Marxist groups declared war on the country,” Uribe said, “provoking the emergence of the paramilitaries. The Marxists killed, maimed, kidnapped and terrorized Colombians, but they also penetrated the institutions of the state, particularly the judicial system. The paramilitaries copied their methods, and we are cleaning that up.”

What about the argument that union leaders continue to be killed in Colombia? “The year before we started our policy of democratic security,” Uribe recalled, “256 union leaders were killed. Last year the figure was 17. My aim is to stop all the killings, but that (reduction) is considerable progress.”

Another argument used by Democrats in the U.S. Congress, and even some Republicans—that there has been a rise in coca plantations—makes Uribe defensive: “If that’s what they believe, then let them scrap Plan Colombia. The U.S. government said that last year we had 150,000 hectares of coca, but the United Nations said we had 79,000. Why don’t they learn to measure? We have extradited more than 700 criminals to the United States. What more do they want?”

Uribe is right about two things: Were it not for his policy of “democratic security,” which led to the demobilization of the AUC, the ties between the paramilitaries and part of Colombia’s establishment would not be an issue in the courts today. And the killings of union leaders have certainly dropped. Thanks to the Uribe government’s terrorist groups, the overall murder rate in Colombia has dropped by almost 50 percent.

As for coca eradication, total cultivation indeed is up. But that is more the fault of a flawed policy that has been forced on Colombia and other Andean nations from abroad than a lack of effort on the part of Colombia. Coca cultivation has also risen in Peru and Bolivia. Linking ratification of the Colombian free-trade agreement with coca cultivation is an excuse. Uribe is hated by the Latin American and European left, whose arguments the Democrats have naively accepted. They resent the fact that Uribe has pushed back the Marxist guerrillas and created a climate in which the economy is booming, with total investment amounting to 28 percent of gross domestic product. To their dismay, he has privatized part of Ecopetrol, the oil company, giving shares directly to half a million Colombians and to another 6 million through their pension plans.

The guerrillas exert pressure from the jungle thanks to their hostages such as former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who has become a cause celebre. Uribe has accepted in principle the idea of an exchange of prisoners for hostages. He is proposing a “zone of encounter” in which negotiations would be carried out with a guarantee that there would be no military intervention.

Is Uribe going soft on the guerrillas? “No”, he responds. “I accepted a proposal from Europe and the (Catholic) church. The zone of encounter would comprise only 150 square kilometers—a rural area with no military or civilian presence right now. We are demanding to see proof that all 47 hostages (the ones the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, says it is prepared to exchange) are alive. Even as we pursue the humanitarian course, we are putting together a fund to pay money to guerrillas who want to liberate hostages against their bosses’ orders. We will not incorporate guerrillas to our armed forces.”

Uribe, who is barred from seeking a third term, does not have a successor and the left wing is making gains. Will his policies be reversed after he leaves office? “I do not believe in the pendulum theory,” he states.

As I leave the presidential palace, I reflect on Uribe’s biggest mistake—not having institutionalized a system under which his policies were less dependent on one man. His biggest challenge is not terrorism, the Democrats or even coca, but depersonalizing the presidency.