A friend in need

Colombia is positioned to enter its most peaceful and prosperous era in decades. At home, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is losing its long war against the government; in the U.S., a free-trade pact awaits approval from Congress. American actions in the next weeks will help determine whether Colombia's political and economic opportunities gather momentum or falter.

Under pressure from human rights and labor organizations, Colombia has done what Democrats in Congress have urged: improved the country's dismal labor record. Certainly more progress must be made &

Colombia still leads the world in murders of union organizers &

but President Alvaro Uribe's government has reduced the number significantly and shown that it's on the right track. Now the U.S. must demonstrate faith in an ally &

faith that its reforms are not solely the product of political pressure from the north, and that the people of Colombia and the government are equally committed to a more just society. Congress should approve the trade pact.

This juncture presents opportunities for both countries. Battered and demoralized, the FARC is under intense international pressure to release its hostages: Franco-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, three American military contractors and hundreds of Colombians. The United States' hands-off policy has been fruitless; now is the time to actively work for the release of Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has visited Uribe to discuss the crisis, and given his history of successful hostage negotiations, his standing as a special envoy of the Organization of American States and his connections in Latin America, he's a logical choice as mediator.

A peaceful resolution to the hostage crisis will also improve the region's political landscape. Colombia's recent incursion into Ecuador, where it attacked a FARC camp, won Uribe tremendous support at home but strained relations with its neighbors. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is ideologically aligned with the rebels, has exploited this anxious moment, and the Bush administration's neglect has only helped to tilt South America hard left. This is why it is crucial for the U.S. to act decisively on the trade agreement and the FARC. Freeing hostages and opening trade are both in Colombia's interests; those are interests we share and should advance.

"" Los Angeles Times

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