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Colombia to honor Bill Clinton amid growing Democrat scrutiny

BOGOTA, Colombia: Colombia will honor former U.S. President Bill Clinton for his efforts to reverse the country's image for violence and drugs at a gala event next month in New York City.

The June 8 event may become a political lightning rod for Democrats who are increasingly scrutinizing the human rights record of Washington's closest ally in Latin America.

That's because President Alvaro Uribe is expected to hand Clinton the "Colombia is Passion" award "for believing in our country and encouraging others to do the same," according to the event's organizer in Bogota.

Last month, Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, backed out of an environmental conference in Miami to avoid appearing alongside Uribe, who has struggled to defend himself against charges that members of his family and government supporters collaborated with murderous right-wing militias.

A spokesman for Sen. Hillary Clinton said in an e-mail the presidential candidate will not attend the event, which is being held at a Manhattan hotel. Philippe Reines, Clinton's senate office spokesman, did not say why the New York Democrat had declined the invitation. Clinton's campaign hasn't released her June schedule, although candidates in the Senate often leave for Iowa or New Hampshire on Fridays.

Among the other 250 invited guests are high-powered businessmen, fashion designer Oscar de la Renta and hip-shaking Colombian pop star Shakira, according to Angela Montoya, organizer of the event for the "Colombia is passion" branding campaign.

Prominent Democrats on the guest list include former Clinton strategists Dick Morris and Vernon Jordan, former Clinton Cabinet members Lawrence Summers and Madeleine Albright, and several Democratic congressmen, Montoya said.

The Colombian government is trying to counter its negative image among Washington Democrats and secure congressional passage of a free trade agreement signed by Uribe and the Bush administration last year, a deal Uribe considers his biggest foreign policy achievement.

Colombia agreed this month to pay US$300,000 (€223,000) to public relations firm Burson-Marsteller to help "educate members of the U.S. Congress and other audiences" about the trade deal and secure continued funding for Plan Colombia, the U.S.-backed counter-narcotics program that has cost American taxpayers more than US$5 billion (€3.72 billion) since 2000.

And last month, Uribe's government put The Glover Park Group, a lobbying firm that includes former Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart, on a US$40,000 (€29,744) a month retainer.

Montoya said the idea to honor Bill Clinton came last year, "before President Uribe was re-elected and all of Colombia thought the free trade agreement was a fact, not an issue."

"Clinton is Colombia's best tourism minister because everytime he opens his mouth to talk about the country he's helping to improve our country's image without even realizing it," she said.

Clinton was responsible for pushing Plan Colombia through Congress when he was president, and for years he said he wore a bracelet honoring a Colombian culture minister, Consuelo Araujo, who was kidnapped by leftist rebels and killed during a botched military rescue attempt shortly after they met at the White House in 2000.

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