How US Helps Colombians Map the Path to Peace

When American symphony conductor Rachael Worby came to Colombia earlier this month to give several concerts sponsored by the US government, Colombian journalists reminded her that US interests in Colombia had recently tended more toward the anti-narcotic than the cultural.

"To me, drugs is a B story," she responded, saying that her interests lie more with addressing community conflict and poverty of the spirit.

While drugs may not yet be a "B story" to the US government, Ms. Worby's visit here symbolizes a broadening of official US policy interests in Colombia beyond drugs, drugs, and drugs.

For many Colombians the US shift to a more complex vision of their country could be a key to ending a long civil war.

"For the United States, Colombia has always equaled narcotics, but fortunately we see that limited vision changing," says Enrique Santos Caldern, assistant director of the Bogot daily El Tiempo.

Mr. Santos and other opinionmakers here refer to a series of seminars the US sponsored this year to get Colombians thinking about how to resolve a long civil conflict and achieve peace. The first seminar, in Houston last February, invited 12 Colombians (including Santos) to discuss with analysts and players in past civil wars how those wars were resolved. Then in May a conference in Cartagena involving more Colombians focused on the road to peace in Central America - with the participation of former military enemies from El Salvador.

Returning to Bogot from the Houston meeting, Santos wrote in his widely read column: "The meeting reflected - and this was very significant - the US interest to go beyond its old obsession with drugs ... to contribute to the search for concerted solutions to our armed conflict." The Santos column was picked up by the National Liberation Army rebel organization to run on its Web page.

This month a third seminar focused on the role of the media in covering - and contributing to the settlement of - armed conflict.

Bogot's Monsignor Hctor Fabio Henao says a US shift giving heavy emphasis to human rights violations in Colombia's conflict has done more than any other initiative to make the government, including the Army, more sensitive to the human rights issue.

Not all observers see the US as quite the white dove in the conflict. Some say plenty of "hawks" remain in the Pentagon, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Congress who would prefer a military settlement to a negotiated peace that opens the political door to the guerrillas.

Yet, while Colombians emphasize the change in US policy, US officials say it was a change in Colombians' approach to the conflict that prompted a more active US involvement in encouraging peace in Colombia. "The sense was this was the right time to try to do something useful," says Christian Filostrat, US Information Service director in Bogot. "When you saw people standing on line for hours to vote for peace [in an October 1997 peace referendum], you knew there was something new to work with."

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