Colombian leader strives to eliminate poverty - root of violence. POLITICS OF REFORM

President Virgilio Barco Vargas came to power on a pledge to stop Colombia's endemic violence by ending ``absolute poverty.'' But mid-way into Mr. Barco's four-year term, almost half his countrymen are still poor and the bloodshed is worsening. The President's aides say his reform program is frustrated by Colombia's antiquated state machinery. His critics accuse him of failing to lead the country out of its quagmire.

President Barco's leadership has become an issue as important as the country's rising tide of violence. A shy and private man, Mr. Barco has been absent at critical moments.

After assassins shot down a leading leftist politician in October and vengeful rioters raised fears of an uprising, a Cabinet minister addressed the nation. Barco kept out of sight.

When drug traffickers killed the country's attorney general in January, anguished Colombians assumed Barco would attend the funeral, but the President stayed home.

Barco is not a typical Colombian politician. In a nation known for its orating attorneys, the bespectacled Barco is an United States-educated engineer who fumbles through public speeches like an absent-minded professor. He has never held a press conference.

His defenders acknowledge that Barco is a colorless leader but they say his style is not important. ``Every president has his own style,'' says Communications Minister Fernando Cepeda, ``but President Barco has the right program.''

Even his many critics credit Barco with a commitment to eliminating a major cause of Colombian violence - poverty.

According to a government study, 13 million out of 30 million Colombians live below the poverty line, and nearly half of those endure an ``absolute poverty'' that leaves them without enough to eat.

Barco has intended to elevate this bottom fifth of the country by expanding the former government's National Plan for Rehabilitation and by his own Plan Against Absolute Poverty, which he launched in August 1986.

The Rehabilitation Plan sends government agents into guerrilla-held regions to organize social programs. His anti-poverty program tries to boost employment, especially in rural areas. (The budget for both is about 4 percent of the gross national product, which opposition party critics say is not nearly enough. Most of the money comes from re-allocating budgeted funds.)

Colombia's unequal distribution of land is the source for much of the country's poverty. Ten percent of Colombians own 80 percent of Colombia's land, according to a 1983 World Bank report. This highly skewed distribution - not unusual in Latin America - forces peasants into the urban slums to find work. Those who stay behind struggle for survival on the worst land and without social services.

The 30-year-old guerrilla insurgency seeks to take advantage of the unequal land distribution. Neither past governments nor large landholders have done much to develop the rural regions, allowing guerrillas to take over an estimated 20 percent of the national territory.

Barco acknowledges that land reform must be the centerpiece of his anti-violence efforts. In a rare interview published last year, Barco vowed to provide ``a bit of land which the peasant can call his own.'' That ``will pacify my country,'' he said. ``Guns won't.''

In December, Barco's land reform bill went to Congress where both opposition parties as well as the President's Liberal Party denounced it. The bill won on what press reports say was a fraudulent vote, which the Supreme Court is likely to annul.

Although a majority of congressmen belong to Barco's party, the President has been unable to control factional struggles in the congress that are reflective of the much more serious and violent disputes in the society at large.

``It's parliamentary anarchy,'' says Eduardo Pizarro, a political scientist at National University.

``Barco's huge electoral victory gave him a big majority in Congress but he hasn't been able to use it to mobilize support for his program,'' says former President Misael Pastrana, leader of the Social Conservatives. ``The problem in Congress is the problem of Barco's leadership.''

Communications Minister Cepeda says Barco's leadership is not the issue. The government is simply overwhelmed ``by a thousand factors,'' Mr. Cepeda says. ``The government is besieged by bureaucratic inefficiency, by threats from guerrillas and drug traffickers, by poverty, by social rigidity,'' says Cepeda. ``We have to unblock Colombian society.''

In February, Barco set out to streamline government procedures. The previous month a wave of unprecedented attacks by drug traffickers and guerrillas had raised a clamor for the government to take action. Barco responded by launching an effort to rewrite Colombia's 102-year-old Constitution and make it a more effective weapon in the fight against violence. He proposed to put the changes to a referendum vote.

The President's bold move earned him opposition party support and an enthusiastic response from a public worn down by Colombia's continuing violence. But Barco's plan suffered a serious legal setback. Judges on the Council of State ruled against a referendum. They said only Congress can revise the Constitution. That procedure will take two years.

``We're just too legalistic,'' says Cepeda.

Last in a series. Previous articles ran May 12, 13, and 16.

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