Colombia's leadership test

BY declaring a 35-day state of emergency, Colombian President Belisario Betancur has held out to his compatriots the promise of the dramatic initiatives they now require. But the larger step remains: actually meeting those needs. The storming of the Palace of Justice and the volcanic eruption that killed more than 20,000 have combined to exert enormous new demands on the leadership of this third-world nation, which previously had its hands full dealing with long-running economic and other challenges.

President Betancur should now move vigorously to aid the dispossessed thousands near the Nevado del Ruiz volcano; housing and other long-term necessities should be provided. The region's economy must be restarted.

Three prime requirements of the government are to coordinate assistance programs, arrange for the transport of materials to areas of need, and exhibit trustworthy leadership. All three elements were too often lacking immediately after the volcanic eruption.

International agencies and developed nations, generous in short-term help to the homeless, have a role to play in this longer-term reconstruction, through financial and material assistance.

The President should also move promptly to return the nation's judiciary to functioning status and should leave no doubt that he, not the military, is in charge of his nation -- an issue in question after the storming of the guerrilla-held Palace of Justice.

What is most required is the most difficult to provide: convincing proof of effective leadership. Mr. Betancur's stature, already in decline before the twin crises, was further eroded by questionable government responses in both cases. Colombians deserve to believe once again that their government is in good hands: It is up to Betancur to prove that it is.

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