Presidential Election Offers Hope for Troubled Colombia

No matter who wins, Sunday's presidential election in Colombia offers hope for a better future for that troubled country. After four years of a weakened and controversial president, the change in leadership will, itself, be important. It will also open the way for a more constructive relationship with the United States.

Over the past several years, life in Colombia has deteriorated on many fronts. Narcotics, criminal violence, and corruption have permeated the country and corroded its politics, institutions, and society. Guerrilla groups, fueled by narco-dollars, are growing stronger, controlling increasing territory and humiliating the nation's Army. For its part, the Army is ineffective, and - jointly with shadowy paramilitary organizations, aided by drug producers - is a murderous violator of human rights. Confidence in Colombia's institutions and leaders is at rock bottom.

Prospects, however, are not all bleak. The presidential election, if it is conducted without the violence that has tarnished other campaigns, could reinvigorate the country's politics.

Colombia's highly regarded economic management, which kept the regionwide debt crisis at bay, has begun to erode, but it continues to produce steady growth. Although the problem remains overwhelming, Colombia has made progress against the drug trade, busting cartels and eliminating many kingpins. Most important, Colombians across the political spectrum say they're ready to work for a peaceful end to the warfare among the Army, paramilitaries, guerrillas, and narco-traffickers.

The problems confronting Colombia are home-grown and must be resolved at home. Washington can help some, but it must first recognize the extraordinary complexity of Colombia's circumstances, and be prepared to work respectfully with Colombia to find solutions. This has not been the case for most of the past four years. US policy has had an almost single-minded focus on drugs. Wittingly or unwittingly, US officials became high-profile players in Colombia's politics. At times, US relations seemed to hinge on a single vote in Colombia's parliament. When the US ostracized President Ernesto Samper for accepting drug money in his campaign, it was not Mr. Samper alone who was debilitated. It was also the Colombian presidency and government, which lost the moral and political authority needed to wage the struggle against drug criminals and guerrillas, launch a serious effort to negotiate peace, or purge the Army of rights violators. The US decision to decertify Colombia, declaring it an unreliable antidrug ally without even a mitigating waiver of penalties, further crippled national authority.

Recently, Washington has changed course and sought to repair the damage of its earlier policies. This March, for example, decertification came with a waiver. President Clinton met privately with President Samper at the April summit in Santiago, Chile, leading Colombians to conclude that relations were becoming more normal.

But there's more the US can do.

No matter how strong its preference, Washington must not trespass on Colombia's presidential elections. It must be made clear that the US is ready to work with whomever the Colombian people choose. The winning candidate will be compromised and weakened if Colombians think either that the US opposed him, or that he benefitted from US support.

Following the election, the US should develop a broad-based relationship with Colombia across the full range of mutual interests. We need to cooperate with Colombia on drugs, but we also have a stake in ending the country's brutal war, curbing human rights abuses, and sustaining a healthy economy and market for US trade and investment.

A negotiated solution is probably the only way to end Colombia's guerrilla war without years of added bloodshed. Even with US support and training, Colombia's Army has little chance of defeating the guerrillas. Since most Colombians now favor negotiations, Washington - Congress as well as the administration - should do all it can to facilitate their success. It may be necessary to strengthen the Army to bolster the government's bargaining position, but that should be done without any illusion that a military victory is possible or that the US should become more directly engaged in the war. Current US military exercises in Colombia should be reviewed in that light.

A US policy to promote negotiations must incorporate a forceful defense of human rights and include efforts to get other countries engaged (some of whom already have organized a friends of Colombia group). It must also make use of the United Nations and Organization of American States.

In the end, peace, security, and good government in Colombia depend on the Colombians. No one but the Colombians can end the violence, stop human rights abuses, and control corruption. No one will pay a higher cost for failure, or gain more from success.

* Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue. Michael Shifter, the Dialogue's program director for democratic governance, contributed to this article.

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