Colombia's new leader faces tough task. Leftist insurgency, drug trade threaten economic progress

Virgilio Barco Vargas, elected President here Sunday, inherits a nation considered democratically and economically healthy by Latin American standards. But Mr. Barco is also being handed one of Latin America's most stubborn narcotics trafficking problems and a leftist guerrilla insurgency that has undermined outgoing President Belisario Betancur's credibility.

The election, which Barco won by a hefty 1.5 million vote margin, was the eighth in an uninterrupted 25-year period of democracy -- the longest in South America. Tight security measures were imposed against possible guerrilla attacks, but no serious incidents were reported.

The contest was between the two traditional parties -- Barco for the Liberals and Alvaro G'omez Hurtado for the Conservatives. But, for the first time, a third party, the Union Patriotica, a coalition of communist and guerrilla factions backing candidate Jaime Pardo Leal, made a significant showing of more than 300,000 votes.

Barco, a wealthy, American-educated engineer and economist, whose family money came from oil interests, has spent his professional life in political and diplomatic service.

During his 1968-69 term as mayor of Bogot'a, Barco established a popular public works program that changed the face of this capital city. Among his campaign promises was a similar program aimed at improving roads in rural regions.

The campaign was a bitter one -- less over national issues than over the candidates' backgrounds. Barco's connections to the oil industry were criticized, while Mr. G'omez was tagged with the nickname ``son of violence.'' G'omez's father, Laureano G'omez Castro, who ruled from 1949 to 1953, was considered one of Colombia's most oppressive presidents. And the connection played negatively with Colombians, who worry about increased military and guerrilla violence.

The burned-out shell of the Colombian Supreme Court in downtown Bogot'a -- where half the justices were killed in a guerrilla takeover in December -- stands as a constant reminder of the guerrilla problem and President Betancur's mixed success in gaining a guerrilla peace pact.

Although candidates did not make a major campaign issue out of the growing domestic violence associated with guerrillas, analysts here consider the security problem to be the root of public pessimism that the new President will have to deal with.

Four years ago, Betancur, a Conservative, was elected on a wave enormous popularity. But his promises of jobs and housing for the poor and his unprecedented offer of amnesty and political participation for guerrillas who laid down their arms did not entirely succeed.

``Maybe peace was not a big issue in the elections, because there are no concrete proposals on how to end the problem with the guerrillas,'' says Jorge Garc'ia, a Bogot'a economic consultant. ``The alternatives are to continue with the [programs of the] past four years or kill them. The public feels the government has been extremely generous . . . especially after the attack [on the Supreme Court].''

Only one of the three guerrilla groups that signed the Betancur peace pact has remained -- the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, which is the largest of the nation's guerrilla groups.

Military and hard-line conservatives never supported the peace plan and note that factions of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces are still armed. Further, Western intelligence reports suggest that the guerrilla movements are still deeply involved in narcotics trafficking. Officials of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces deny this.

The military is believed to have pressured Betancur into allowing December's counterattack on the Supreme Court rather than negotiating with the guerrillas, says Bruce Bagley, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Reports of disappearances and a mounting ``dirty war'' between military and subversives add to Dr. Bagley's assertion that there is a growing ``authoritarian trend'' here.

On the economic front, Barco inherits relatively good conditions. Unemployment is 8.3 percent, compared to the 20 to 40 percent unemployment recorded in other South American countries. Further, the country's foreign debt burden is a relatively light $6 billion.

A current coffee ``bonanza'' -- high prices for Colombian coffee due to a drought in Brazil that decreased exports there -- is increasing foreign exchange earnings.

But, say economists, the rapid growth spurred by the coffee bonanza will ultimately present Barco with the challenge of higher inflation.

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