Unfazed by Mortar Shells

Colombia's new president, Alvaro Uribe, was sworn in to a background of mortar explosions. It was as if the country's main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was daring him to follow through on his get-tough promises.

If that were the case, it didn't work. The next day, President Uribe was flying, as planned, into parts of Colombia where the rebels are strongest. He promoted his idea of enlisting up to a million citizens to provide intelligence on rebel movements. He ardently called for Colombians to join together and not be defeated by fear.

Uribe takes office at a moment when his country's chronic problems – its 38-year guerrilla war, its still- burgeoning narcotics production, its teetering economy – seem more intractable than ever. A man of tremendous energy, he appears primed to move on all fronts at once.

Uribe proposes fiscal discipline in order to generate the money needed to finance a doubling of Army and police forces. He's ready to raise taxes, and there's talk of issuing war bonds. At the same time, the president wants to attack corruption and waste by reforming Colombia's institutions of government, slashing bureaucracy and almost halving the size of the legislature.

A fundamental question is whether all this can be accomplished with due respect for human rights and democratic process. Uribe has sometimes been accused of being soft on Colombia's right-wing paramilitaries, whose record for brutality rivals that of FARC. All the "violent ones," to use the president's phrase, must be opposed.

Washington's help will be essential to Uribe's goals, and it should be forthcoming. Uribe will need sustained military aid to more aggressively fight the rebels and force them back to negotiations. If he can bring greater stability to Colombia, the whole Andean region, as well as US interests, will greatly benefit.

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