Fresh Start in Colombia

Colombia has taken an important first step out of the darkness which has engulfed it during the past four years. The incoming president, Andres Pastrana, was supported by a clear majority of Colombians in an election that spurred the highest voter turnout, 54 percent, in the country's recent history.

Colombians clearly had enough of the drug-related corruption and mounting civil conflict that shadowed outgoing chief executive Ernesto Samper. The country's economy has wilted as disorder and scandal flourished.

Mr. Pastrana comes in with a daunting agenda. First, he has to follow through on campaign promises to meet with guerrilla leaders and talk peace. The groundwork for that task has already been laid by contacts between his staff and the rebels.

Coaxing the insurgents - with their mix of Marxist ideology and drug-trade financing - into the political mainstream won't be easy.

That endeavor will overlap, to a degree, with another Pastrana priority: patching relations with the United States. Those relations eroded badly under Mr. Samper, who was accused (originally by Pastrana) of accepting drug money to finance his electoral campaign. The US, however, still contributes $90 million a year to combat cocaine production in Colombia. Can the new president pacify the rebels while maintaining the antidrug offensive demanded by Washington? It shouldn't be forgotten that US funds also go to the Colombian Army's anti-insurgency efforts.

As a candidate, Pastrana emphasized reducing the demand for narcotics, a tactic that points the finger of blame in Uncle Sam's direction.

Cooperation between Colombia and the US, not confrontation, is the need - not only for the drug battle, but to resuscitate a key Latin American economy and thus give Colombians some return on their vote.

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