There was a time when you’d say “Colombia” and the word-association would be, “drugs.”

Tuesday night, former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe spoke at SMU’s outstanding Tate Lecture Series. And he mentioned “drugs” twice. Briefly. And both times as an aside to other issues.

The perception of Colombia has come a long way in the past decade. Today it’s seen less as the exotic, backward, drug-fueled country from “Romancing the Stone” and more as a seriously emerging economic market.

Uribe, a two-term president who served from 2002 to 2010, is a big reason for that transformation. He’s credited for leading the country from the precipice of a civil war with guerillas to its current state of potential.

When he took the stage at McFarlin Auditorium, it was evident why he was so effective. Uribe displayed an impressive grasp of regional issues, a willingness to discuss the failings of his administration, and a disarming sense of humor. And like any good politician, he stuck to his talking points.

Interestingly – perhaps tellingly – he opened by focusing on arable land, water, and environmentalism.

“We do not need to cut the jungle down to achieve economic prosperity,” he said. He would repeat that theme at least three more times during his prepared remarks, which he limited to 21 minutes to allow for questions. A limit he stuck to, proudly owning up to, and defying, the stereotype as a “Latin American speaker, a Latin American politician.”

That one of the most popular figures inSouth America’s most conservative country would focus so much on preserving the rain forest is an indication of how the region is changing.

And Uribe did not demur from playing up those changes. He stressed the need for a three-prong approach to development in Latin America that focused on security, freedom and social cohesion.

“Military dictatorships are a thing of the past,” he said, an open reference to the long-running reign of recently deceased Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, and now, the “Chavista” government that recently came to power in disputed elections.

Uribe spoke almost as much about Venezuela as Colombia, pleading with the audience, students on other college campuses, and community and human-rights organizations to demand new internationally-monitored elections in the country. He had tweeted photos of Venezuelan legislator María Corina Machado, who had her nose broken in an attack by Chavistas on the floor of the Venezuelan legislature, on his Twitter account earlier that day.

The man is plugged in and ready to engage.

When a young woman from the audience asked Uribe if it was safe to travel to Colombia, he answered, “The only risk you’d face is wanting to stay.”

If we had a western hemisphere version of the European Union, he would be one of my candidates to head it.