New Colombian President To Slow Economic Reform

COLOMBIA'S new president, Ernesto Samper Pizano, took office this week promising to intensify a crackdown on drug traffickers and shift away from fast-track economic reforms introduced by the last administration.

But as President Samper pledged tougher penalties for drug traffickers, he also pleaded for international help in Colombia's war on drugs. ``We are combating and we will continue to combat drug trafficking out of conviction, because of the grave harm it has caused to Colombian society,'' he said in his Sunday inauguration speech. ``[But] we feel alone when we see how international drug consumption is rising.''

United States officials have put pressure on Samper to take a hard line against the Cali drug cartel, which emerged as the main drug-trafficking force after Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar Gaviria was killed last December. This is generally interpreted to mean ending plea bargaining with traffickers and arresting cartel leaders Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela. Samper said Sunday that he would increase narcotraffickers' sentences but keep the policy of leniency for those who voluntarily surrender.

Samper's commitment to fighting drug traffickers has been in doubt since, shortly after his June election, a series of taped telephone conversations surfaced that made it sound as though he received campaign contributions from the Cali cartel. Samper, himself still carrying four bullets in his body from a attack, has vigorously denied the implications.

On the economic front, the successes of former president Cesar Gaviria Trujillo will be difficult for Samper to follow. Mr. Gaviria, one of a new breed of neoliberal economists here, implemented a plan to modernize the Colombian economy that helped spur a 3- to 5-percent growth rate for four years.

``The big question,'' says Santiago Pardo, an economic adviser to former presidents Virgilio Barco Vargas and Gaviria, ``is whether [Gaviria] went too fast. The industrial and agriculture sectors were not ready to compete internationally, and they have borne the brunt of the difficulties incurred during the process of apertura [opening],'' he says. Under Gaviria, Colombia began economic liberalization, lifting trade restrictions and encouraging foreign investment, as well as signing several important free-trade agreements. Mr. Pardo emphasized that Samper's administration will slow the economic liberalization process until the industrial and agricultural sectors become more competitive.

Gaviria also enacted constitutional reforms, which guaranteed more autonomy for Colombia's regions. ``Gaviria began the process of decentralization and new municipalities have more control over resources produced in the region and they can apply them to their needs,'' Pardo says. But he warned that the municipalities may not be ready to handle this responsibility. ``Preparing the municipalities to deal with the transfer of resources and responsibilities may be one of the biggest challenges facing Samper.''

DESPITE Gaviria's constitutional and economic successes, the administration was marred by its poor human rights' record. Experts have called upon Samper to apply recommendations made by nongovernmental and institutional organizations, and enforce laws already in place to protect human rights.

``Gaviria's administration made theoretical advances, such as guaranteeing human rights in the Constitution, but did little or nothing in practical terms,'' says Gustavo Gallon, director of the Andean Commision of Jurists. The overall human rights situation in Colombia did not improve under Gaviria, Mr. Gallon says, noting that an average of 10 people are killed daily for political reasons, a figure that has not changed since 1988. Many abuses have been connected to security forces.

Samper faces many of the challenges Gaviria did but he will also be able to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor. ``Colombia has now had 20 years of sustained growth so the future for Samper looks bright,'' Pardo says.

Is Gallon optimistic about the future? ``In human rights work we rarely use the word optimistic, the situation is just too grave,'' Gallon says. ``We do feel, however, that there may be advances under Samper. He has made some thoughtful and progressive speeches on human rights. But then again, so did Gaviria.''

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