Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Pubdate: Tue, 22 Sep 1998
Author: Ana Carrigan


WHEN Andres Pastrana, Colombia's new president, visits Capitol Hill on
Thursday, he will try to persuade congressional leaders not to sabotage his
government's courageous efforts to end 35 years of civil war by negotiating
with that country's guerrillas. Lamentably, his chances of success are

Odds are that Pastrana's commitment to honor his overwhelming mandate from
the electorate to negotiate will again collide with the only Colombian
policy in town: U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey's counter-narcotics war.
Only strong White House and State Department leadership to rally bipartisan
support for Colombia's peace negotiations can avert a crisis now, and such
support seems unlikely.

In the view of Congress, Pastrana's bold new policies are at best
unwelcome, at worst downright dangerous.

Congress has only two things in mind when it focuses on Colombia: drugs,
and narco-guerrillas. Colombian coca and poppy fields grow 80 percent of
the Cocaine and 60 percent of the heroin that reaches the United States.
McCaffrey, determined to cut off drugs at the source, has declared war on
the 200,000 peasants who earn a living cultivating coca plants.

Enter the narco-guerrilla, who shoots at the U.S. spray planes that carry
out the crop fumigation strategy.

McCaffrey's aerial crop eradication program in Colombia is the most
ambitious of its kind in Latin America. It has brought a war of herbicides
and helicopter gunships to the southern coca fields and -- despite official
denials to the contrary -- triggered the rapid escalation of U.S.
involvement with the Colombian military in the counterinsurgency war.

Last week, Congress overwhelmingly approved spending $208 million for
helicopters and machine guns to help in the Colombian anti-drug effort. And
it went a step further: It said the money would be offered only if the
country's leadership does not pursue, as part of its peace plan, the
creation of a demilitarized zone in the heart of the coca plantation
region. It is that vote that represents the gravest threat to Colombia's
hopes for peace.

Washington is confused by Pastrana. Politically and economically
conservative, a wealthy, free-market, pro-American, clean politician,
Pastrana appeared typecast for the role of ``Our man in Bogota.'' But his
refreshing independence on some of the most sensitive issues has upset
administration officials accustomed to servile compliance with American
demands. They expect of Pastrana what they got from his weak, corrupt
predecessor, Ernesto Samper, and they are not getting it.

Pastrana's anti-narcotics chief has publicly characterized the aerial
spraying as a failure, and his environmental minister has vetoed the
environmentally hazardous herbicide Tebuthiuron from the spraying program
- -- an addition that had been agreed to by Samper, under pressure from the
U.S. ambassador.

Nor is Washington pleased with Pastrana's six-hour meeting with Cuban
leader Fidel Castro at the recent non-aligned summit in Durban, South

The administration's most acute unhappiness, however, focuses on Pastrana's
commitment to demilitarize an area the size of El Salvador in the heart of
the coca plantations before initiating talks with the guerrilla leadership
in November. Even before Congress moved to block the plan last week,
according to one State Department source, ``This peace process has
frightened the heck out of people here.''

Indeed, this could be a watershed moment in Colombia's relationship with
the United States. But somewhere between Bogota and Washington, the
promise, the complexity, and the enormity of what is at stake for
Colombia's 40 million people, and for U.S. and regional interests, was lost
in translation.

Once before, in the mid-1980s, a decade of partisan bitterness in Congress
over Central American policies was set aside in the interest of supporting
a bipartisan peace pact for the region. Today, such leadership is again
called for. Washington and Bogota need to throw away the old model and
reformulate their relationship.

Currently, the United States is committed to heavy spending to extend
aerial crop eradication. Last year, 45,000 acres were sprayed -- yet the
acreage of coca plantations increased 18 percent over the same period.
Indeed, coca plantations have grown by 56 percent over the last two years.

Pastrana and most others realize the spraying program is a catastrophe.
Pastrana -- who believes that, under Colombia's conditions, growing illicit
crops is a social, not a criminal, problem -- wants to institute a
collaborative effort, based on Colombian manpower and U.S. money, to
eradicate the coca plants by hand, in collaboration with the growers. He
would then offer them long- and short-term economic development help as
part of an agrarian reform effort.

At a first, historic meeting between Pastrana and the legendary 68-year-old
guerrilla leader Manuel Marulanda, whose peasant army has been at war with
the state for 35 years, the army's leaders repeated their desire to
collaborate with the government to eradicate illicit crops in return for
development of alternative sources of income for the peasant growers.

In his inaugural address, Pastrana asked for international help to finance
a Marshall Plan to build schools, hospitals, and roads and to develop
microbusinesss to bring employment and economic development to the areas
where the drugs now flourish.  Such a plan is understandably attractive to
the peasant army and the small farmers they represent, who are tired of the
violence and death that come with an illegal drug trade.

But U.S. congressmen have not talked to Colombian coca farmers. Instead,
when they fly into the country on fact-finding missions, they meet the
Colombian police, U.S. military advisers, and intelligence staff who prop
up the Colombian military.

Without exposure to the population, they have made up their minds to expand
the failed U.S. anti-drug program and to halt peace negotiations.
Washington's expanded counter-narcotics strategy will continue to target
narco-guerrillas, a composite enemy that includes all those to whom
Pastrana has given political status, and whose identification has permitted
the obliteration of the line between counter-narcotics and

Ana Carrigan is author of ``The Palace of Justice: a Colombian Tragedy.''
This was written for the Boston Globe.

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Checked-by: Joel W. Johnson