Colombian democracy

THE 31/2-year presidency of Colombia's Belisario Betancur, now deeply troubled by the aftermath of last week's military assault on the guerrilla-held Ministry of Justice, is a case study of the difficulties many Latin American leaders face as they try to bring their nations out of military rule into civilian control. The greatest challenge lies in sustaining initial progress long enough to carry out fundamental social reforms, while retaining the support of the majority of the people and of the power st ructure. El Salvador's Jos'e Napole'on Duarte and Argentina's Ra'ul Alfons'in now confront such situations. In several other Central and South American countries, civilian leaders in the early stages of their rule are in position for similar challenges.

On top of all his other problems, President Betancur must now deal with the aftermath of a major volcanic eruption in western Colombia.

There are lessons aplenty from the Colombian experience. The most obvious is the vastness of the problem, and the necessity that any Latin American leader pay constant attention to maintaining as broad a consensus behind him as possible while working away at necessary reforms.

Developed democratic nations and institutions should practice great patience with their Latin American peers. Support for progress achieved should be given publicly.

Neither the United States nor any other nation should deal directly with the military in Latin American democracies, nor with right-wing opponents of civilian leaders. Rather, the military should be made to understand that if it wants to receive money or weaponry, it must first back its civilian leader; military assistance should be considered only if the president requests it.

The international financial community should permit debtor nations that are new democracies particular latitude in repaying their debts. Sufficient funds should be allowed to remain within the troubled countries to permit an improved standard of living and a strengthening of industries that could ultimately produce export goods.

President Betancur made a splendid start in Colombia. By promising major domestic reforms, he made peace with guerrilla groups that had flourished nearly 30 years. He used the military force in major efforts to conquer the drug traffickers who had made Colombia the drug processing center of Latin America. He sought to bolster his nation's sagging economy. And he played a leading role in trying to end Central America's warfare through negotiation, in the Contadora process.

But early successes unraveled. The powerful military resented his concessions to guerrillas. Some guerrilla groups felt that the pace of reform was too slow; one faction, called M-19, broke the truce several months ago. To some extent guerrillas and drug traffickers began to work together. The economy remained weak. Internationally, the Contadora peace process ground to a halt.

Then came last week's takeover of the Ministry of Justice by M-19, immediately followed by a military assault on the building, with an estimated 100 fatalities. Mr. Betancur clearly threw in his lot with the military; questions are raised as to whether he actually ordered the military assault on the justice building or whether the military began the assault itself and then presented him with a fait accompli.

Colombia is now more polarized than ever in the Betancur years. Arrayed against the President are the judiciary, now on strike, university communities, and many liberals and leftists.

The President is now aligned with the military, and against reforms.

He is thus weakened at home as he enters the final half year of his presidency; new presidential elections will be held next May and he is ineligible to succeed himself. Parliamentary elections will be held earlier in the spring. The hand of the center-right is strengthened, and the prospect that the next government will continue the Betancur policy of reconciliation is diminished. ----30--{et

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