Disgusted by Drug-Fed Graft, Colombians Seek New Image


FANNY MICKEY came to Colombia from her native Argentina for the love of a man. But the actress and theater director, best known for establishing in Bogota what is now the world's largest international theater festival, ended up staying for love of a country.

That may come as a surprise to those for whom Colombia is a four-letter word: drug. It may be just as bewildering to others who know, for example, that Colombia distributes 80 percent of the world's cocaine and that it has one of the highest murder rates in the world and the longest guerrilla war in Latin America.

But Ms. Mickey says one thing attracted her enough to Colombia when she first came here 36 years ago to prompt her to change nationalities: the people. ''I fell in love with a people who, despite all the violence, the narco-filth, and the corruption, are determined to carry forth,'' she says.

''This is a very important moment in Colombia. More people all the time are determined to clean up this image - for ourselves and before the world.''

As Mickey busily prepares the fifth Ibero-American Theater Festival that opens here March 22, she senses many changes in her country over recent months. The wildly red-headed thespian is not alone in her conviction that Colombia has reached a watershed. Similar views are expressed by some of the country's business leaders, academics, and students.

What began as fear and revulsion in the late 1980s during the narco-terrorism spawned by the then-powerful Medellin cocaine cartel has gradually grown to a determination to rid the country of the drug-fed corruption and violence pulling Colombia down.

The scales began tipping last year, some observers say, when revelations of drug money in the 1994 presidential campaign triggered a bout of national introspection.

''We [Colombians] have finally arrived at the conclusion that there is nothing positive about this [drug] trade,'' says Jorge Ramirez Ocampo, executive president of Bogota's National Association of Exporters.

He says it does not create jobs ''except for assassins and construction workers'' building the condos and malls where the drug lords launder their profits.

And Colombia's murder rate nearly quadrupled between 1970 and 1993 from 24 to 83 per 100,000 people. The mayhem caused an estimated 2 percent loss in annual economic growth, Mr. Ramirez says.

University students, once thought by many here to be more indifferent to national events than their predecessors, surprised some analysts by taking to the streets in past weeks to demand the resignation of President Ernesto Samper Pizano, implicated in the deepening narco-scandal.

''We grew up amid the narco- values and the political corruption, and we don't want that any more,'' says Silvana Faillace, a senior in political science at the University of the Andes in Bogota. ''If we say we want the president to quit, guilty or not, it's because we see our whole political system crumbling down, and to build it again we feel we have to start with something new.''

Mr. Samper, long suspected of accepting cocaine-cartel contributions in his 1994 campaign, was dragged to the brink after his campaign manager and former defense minister declared the president knew of the campaign's drug financing. Samper is facing fresh attacks after the country's top prosecutor presented new evidence against him in Congress on Feb. 14.

Samper, who has long protested his innocence, said Sunday that he was seeking ''to be able to leave in a dignified way.''

Samper as role model?

The current crisis will end up being positive for Colombia if it cements this new determination to rid the country of the drug trade's corrosive influence, many observers concur.

''We really should erect a statue of Samper in Plaza Bolivar [Bogota's central square and traditional rallying site] in recognition of what he's done for Colombia,'' says a sardonic Alejandro Reyes, a political scientist at the National University here.

Yet despite excitement that Colombia's decades-old indifference is ending, not everyone here is so sure. A country that grew up on civil war and endured a decade of strife starting in 1948 dubbed simply ''la Violencia,'' when 300,000 people were killed, is still not sufficiently indignant to really change, some observers counter.

Colombians compared to zebras

Recently a Bogota architect wrote in the guest column of a local newspaper that Colombians are like zebras who, when facing a sudden threat, run in a panic just far enough to get out of harm's way - and then stop to graze again as if nothing happened. And if one zebra is pulled down by a hungry lion, the architect continued, the rest feed all the more peacefully, assured that the one zebra's unfortunate demise assures them of at least temporary safety.

''I agree we were a country left without a social conscience,'' Ms. Faillace says, ''but that is what we now see changing.''

Mickey agrees. She recalls 1988, when the first bomb in the Medellin cartel's campaign of terror exploded outside a theater during the first Ibero-American Theater Festival. Pressure was high to cancel the remaining events, but Mickey decided that for the good of Colombia the show had to go on.

On the festival's last night, 100,000 people gathered in Plaza Bolivar for the closing event. ''I counted the minutes pacing, I was so afraid something dreadful would happen,'' she says. When the show ended, the crowd, realizing Mickey was overseeing the event from a nearby balcony, spontaneously turned toward her and began singing the Colombian national anthem. ''It was a very public and unifying act of loyalty,'' she says smiling. ''That's the Colombia I have faith in.''

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