Colombia's 'Reforms' May Hide President's Ploy to Boost Powers

Concerns are growing in Colombia that President Ernesto Samper Pizano's planned constitutional reforms may prove to be a setback in his country's efforts toward liberal democracy.

The far-reaching proposals were announced July 20 just after Mr. Samper was absolved of taking $6 million in drug-cartel-related funds into his election campaign. Heralded as the most ambitious antinarcotics legislation in the country's history, the reforms are ostensibly intended to restore Samper's tarnished image and convince the United States of Colombia's commitment to the war on drugs.

The US is eager to see measures in place well before it considers normalizing trade relations with Colombia in December. High on the American agenda are greater powers to seize drug traffickers' assets and tighter controls on money laundering.

But cracks have begun to appear in the glossy presentation of the package as the antinarcotics legislation limps slowly forward, weakened by a Congress regarded as heavily infiltrated by drug interests.

Other areas of the proposed reforms focus on a series of tough law-and-order measures. They would boost the powers of the president and of the country's notoriously brutal military, raising fears that Colombia's already questionable human rights record may deteriorate further if the legislation is passed.

"Efforts to combat the cocaine trade have been used as a faade, behind which lie authoritarian reforms," one political analyst says. "The proposals make the president less accountable and give the military and police greater freedom to crack down, not only on the guerrillas but also on opposition groups, labor unions, peasant organizations, and human rights groups."

The new laws would remove the right of the courts to intervene in a state of emergency, effectively leaving the president free to mobilize the armed forces for indefinite periods in the event of civil unrest.

Within the executive, Samper wants to abolish the responsibilities of the vice president - a traditional check on the president's power. He also intends to prevent the attorney, comptroller, and prosecutor general from running for public office after serving their terms - a move which would prevent any of these officials from challenging him for the presidency.

It was the prosecutor-general's office that virtually brought Samper to his knees during investigations into the presence of Cali cartel money in his campaign fund.

Many see this particular measure as a slap in the face of Chief Prosecutor Alfonso Valdivieso. In a further snub to Mr. Valdivieso, a clause was included that would allow "any Colombian citizen to contribute funds to political parties and their campaigns." Under this clause, the prosecutor would have had no case against the president.

On the surface, plans for electoral reform may seem less significant. But Colombia has a long history of machine-party politics. Local party bosses are closely aligned with the central government. Using the state apparatus, jobs and contracts are offered in return for political allegiance.

Constitutional reforms in 1991 sought to break up this web of control by staggering local and national elections and empowering minorities. The suggestion that elections to all positions of power should be conducted on the same day is a marked move away from the populist spirit of the 1991 Constitution.

"These measures benefit only the old order," says Colombian Sen. Claudia Blum. "They inhibit the new vision of democracy which has been growing in this country."

Human rights organizations worry that the cocaine trade has overshadowed issues of civil liberty and justice. They say that Colombia's drug industry diverts attention from what is already one of the worst human rights records in Latin America.

Analysts say that the measures before Congress grant the police and military further license to conduct witch hunts for members of opposition parties such as the Unin Patriotica, thousands of whose members have disappeared or been killed. Under the reforms, it will become more difficult to monitor and deal with such abuses.

President Samper this week reiterated his intention to abolish the Police High Commission, a civilian watchdog that monitors law-enforcement agencies. At a conference in Medelln, Vice Prosecutor Alfonso Salamanca slammed Samper's proposal.

"What angers me," he said, "is that to win the support of the police, the president has removed what little independent control the Colombian people had over their forces of law and order."

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