Colombia praises former US president Bill Clinton during New York ceremony

Colombians touted former President Bill Clinton as the unofficial minister of tourism, lavishing him with praise and honoring the work he has done to reverse the Latin American country's image of violence and drugs.

"Colombians are proud of your friendship, Mr. President," Colombian President Alvaro Uribe said Friday as he gave Clinton the "Colombia is passion" award. Uribe said tourism has been up significantly since Clinton visited the country in 2001.

The ceremony Friday evening included a video extolling Clinton as a national hero, thanking him for "never believing the bad things" about Colombia. His quotes about the virtues of Colombia were plastered around the hall, and pictures of the former president wearing a traditional Colombian hat were pasted on staff T-shirts.

Uribe noted that violence is down and the country is safer, but said he was pushing for more positive change.

"We have improved. We need to do much more, but we are on the right way," Uribe said.

Clinton urged Congress to consider the strides Colombia has made, even as fellow Democrats threatened to reduce aid to Washington's closest ally in Latin America.

"So those of us who are trying to help, those of us who want to continue progress, owe it to our friends in Colombia to know what they've been through, and to express a little humility in the face of people who have already lost so much, and who are working so hard to build a better tomorrow," Clinton said.

Clinton shook hands with Uribe, who has struggled to defend himself against charges that members of his family and government supporters collaborated with murderous right-wing militias.

In April, former Vice President Al Gore backed out of an environmental conference in Miami to avoid appearing alongside the Colombian leader.

Clinton acknowledged that he was at the Manhattan event in part because of debate in Congress over free trade and aid to Colombia.

"We need to remember that we are friends," Clinton said. "We need to remember that we want to share a common future. We need to remember that for the first time in over three decades there is a law enforcement presence representing the elected government of Colombia."

Uribe's administration is trying to secure congressional passage of a free trade agreement signed by Uribe and the Bush administration last year, a deal the Colombian president considers his biggest foreign policy achievement.

Earlier Friday, presidential hopeful Sen. Chris Dodd circulated a letter made public May 22 urging Colombia to reverse the "infiltration" of murderous paramilitary groups at high government levels or risk losing $700 million (euro524 million) in aid. The missive was signed by eight Democratic senators, including another candidate for president, Barack Obama.

Dodd's office said the letter was made public last month but most Colombians only learned about its existence on Friday, when a copy was published in a front-page story by Colombian newspaper El Tiempo.

Uribe said Friday he had no knowledge of the letter, also signed by Sen. Patrick Leahy, who froze $55 million (euro41 million) in aid to Colombia's military in April as head of the subcommittee overseeing foreign aid.

"(Thursday) I met with Sen. Leahy for about an hour and he didn't tell me anything about this," Uribe said before departing for New York.

Leahy, in an e-mailed statement Friday, said "for several years, U.S. aid to Colombia has been on autopilot. I fully expect the Congress to continue support, because our countries share many interests. But the Congress is not going to be a rubber stamp. Those days are over."

While the guest list for Friday included hip-shaking Colombian pop star Shakira and former Clinton Cabinet member Madeleine Albright, neither attended. Presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was traveling to Iowa, according to her schedule.