Colombian President emerges stronger than ever after two national tragedies

Although two successive national tragedies have challenged Colombia's President Belisario Betancur within the last month, he has emerged stronger than ever and more in charge of his government. Last month several of President Betancur's staunchest supporters were killed during a guerrilla attack on the Supreme Court. Nearly 100 people died in the 28-hour siege, including the president of the Supreme Court and half its magistrates.

A week later, Colombia suffered the worst disaster in its history when a volcano in the central Andes erupted, killing 25,000 people in landslides and floods.

But the volcanic eruption brought out the best in the Colombian people, including the President. Betancur urged his people to show solidarity with the victims and keep faith in their country.

Despite Colombia's misfortune, the picture is not entirely bleak: The volcano forced a needed political pause in order to help the injured and homeless, and revealed the deep humanism of Colombia's President.

Strongly criticized for allowing the military to call the shots in the Supreme Court affair, Betancur once again became the country's leader. When asked who was in charge of the situation, a high-ranking relief official instantly replied, ``Betancur.''

A poet who believes in dreams, Betancur came to the presidency in 1982 on a wave of popular expectations.

Born of a large impoverished family, he spoke to the people of a common hope that ``no more blood'' would be shed in Colombia after a century and a half of political fighting, first between the Conservative and Liberal parties, then between left-wing guerrilla groups and the military.

Nobel laureate Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez, whose book ``One Hundred Years of Solitude'' reflects the senselessness of so much bloodletting, was an early supporter of Betancur's initiative to end four decades of guerrilla warfare through a cease-fire. Although the military disliked the idea, and several guerrilla movements rejected it outright, Betancur's personal popularity and the widespread desire for peace enabled the President, a Conservative Party member, to achieve at least part of his plan.

Thus in the spring of 1984 Colombians celebrated the signing of a truce between the government and the Colombia Revolutionary Armed Forces, South America's oldest and largest guerrilla movement. White doves painted in honor of the historic event can still be seen on walls and streets throughout the country.

But like the doves, which have faded or been painted over, hopes of peace have receded, and the problematic peace process is no longer seen as a possible model for other strife-storn countries in Latin America, especially Peru.

While the Colombia Revolutionary Armed Forces has stuck to the truce, two other guerrilla groups, which subsequently signed the cease-fire, have returned to fighting. One, the anarchic M-19 movement, was responsible for the attack on the Supreme Court. Three other insurgent groups, which rejected the truce, never stopped fighting.

The truce has also been the target of a snipers' war by the upper classes who dominate the Conservative and Liberal parties. They describe any suggestion of social and political reform as ``communist.''

Consequently, legislative reforms have been stymied in Congress, even though they were a condition of the cease-fire. Most of the proposals, such as the popular election of mayors or equal time on television and radio for political candidates, have long been features of Western democracies.

Disowned by many of the leaders in his own party and without a national political movement to support his cause, Betancur gradually lost control of the peace process to the armed forces.

The military believes that force is the only way to deal with leftist guerrillas despite the failure of such solutions to end decades of insurrection.

``The only way to stop guerrilla warfare is to eliminate the social and economic injustices that feed it,'' said retired Gen. Alvaro Valencia Tovar, one of the military's few intellectual leaders.

The M-19 has repeatedly challenged the armed forces in a hit-and-run war in southwestern Colombia. Recently, the M-19 attempted to kidnap the head of the Army. By the time of the M-19 attack on the Supreme Court this month, the Army was in no mood to listen to suggestions that the government negotiate with the guerrillas to save the hostages' lives.

Informed political sources argue that Betancur was caught in a dilemma of having to choose between the judges or a weakened presidency.

``It would not be the first time that the military overthrew a president who crossed it,'' said Congressman Alvaro Uribe Rueda, a Liberal Party leader.

``Just imagine what would have happened if the guerrillas had still been in control of the Supreme Court when the volcano disaster occurred,'' added former President Misael Pastrana Borrero, a close associate of Betancur. ``The situation would have been untenable.''

But the peace process is not a complete failure. Despite occasional run-ins with the military, the Colombia Revolutionary Armed Forces has gone forward with plans to participate in next spring's congressional and presidential elections. Although its presence in the political arena will not end the guerrilla conflict, the possibility that Colombia's most important rebel group will seek peaceful solutions to the country's pressing problems suggests that Betancur's dream is still possible.

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