AS Latin American countries go, Colombia has certain distinct advantages to offer any new president. It is one of the region's oldest democracies. Its economy, on the upswing, is expected to grow this year at the relatively healthy rate of at least 4 percent, while unemployment holds at a comparatively low 14 to 15 percent. Virgilio Barco Vargas, the US-educated civil engineer and economist who was inaugurated as President last week, also brings to the office advantages of his own. His 58 percent margin of victory, higher than that of any of his predecessors, is a landslide by Latin American standards. Mr. Barco also has a political advantage in that his center-left Liberal Party has a majority in both houses of Congress and dominates his entire Cabinet.
President Barco, a former mayor of Bogot'a, will doubtless need every one of these advantages to carry out promised economic and social reforms and cope with major challenges -- from the right in rising human rights abuses, from the left in increasingly terroristic guerrilla activity, and from narcotics traffickers on both sides of the political spectrum.
Former President Belisario Betancur's 1982 truce offer -- amnesty to guerrillas who lay down their arms -- will continue under Mr. Barco, but under the presumably closer supervision of a presidential adviser rather than the now extinct peace commission. Six of Colombia's seven guerrilla groups have now declined the amnesty and returned to old practices. It is a problem symbolized by the attack of the M-19 group last November on the Colombian Supreme Court, provoking a counterattack by the military, in which some 100, including half of the nation's judges, were killed. Only the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces remains committed to the peace plan. On the plus side: It is the largest guerrilla group, and some of the members of its political arm were recently elected to Congress.
While no major narcotics traffickers have been captured, Bogot'a has made some determined strides in recent months against the drug problem. Colombia has destroyed an estimated 85 percent of the marijuana crop in its traditional growing areas, clamped down hard on importation of chemicals used in processing cocaine from nearby Bolivia and Peru, and, unlike many of its neighbors, has been extraditing traffickers to the United States for prosecution.
Colombia's longtime commitment to trying to control both leftist guerrillas and drug trafficking led US Secretary of State George Shultz, who went to Bogot'a for Barco's inauguration, to term it a ``stand-up country.'' Much now, of course, depends on President Barco's leadership skills and his decisions on how Colombia's resources are spent. But he has been making promising statements, and he should have the economic and political tools to carry them out. We wish him well.