Clinton's day in Colombia - enough to help?

When President Clinton travels to Cartagena, Colombia, next week, it will be the most important of his half-dozen or so visits to Latin America during his two terms.

Following the approval two months ago of $1.3 billion in security assistance to Colombia, Mr. Clinton's visit underscores the priority Washington assigns this nation of 40 million people. Colombia demands that kind of attention. The world's largest supplier of cocaine, Colombia today is trapped in a bloody guerrilla war. It also suffers extensive criminal violence, widespread human rights violations, a distressed economy, and an increasingly alienated and distrustful population. Continuing deterioration of Colombia's situation puts the future of the nation's democratic institutions at risk and threatens to spread instability to five bordering countries.

Clinton will spend just one day in Colombia, but this is enough time for him to pursue three vital policy objectives.

First, he must try to make clear to Americans what the US has at stake in Colombia and why the US should make a long-term commitment to that country. The argument is only partially about drugs. More attention now must be paid to how US support can enhance prospects for peace, reconciliation, and the rule of law, in part by helping to turn Colombia's Army into a more professional force. Clinton also needs to explain to taxpayers why progress on these fronts in Colombia is important for democracy across the hemisphere and for US-Latin American relations. Clinton should show he is aware of the concerns that Colombia may become a Vietnam-style quagmire for the US. He can address these concerns head-on - by citing Colombia's impressive history of democratic governance and leaving no doubt that US troops will not be used in combat.

Second, Clinton has the opportunity to bolster the Pastrana government in Colombia and promote its peace-making efforts. Right after his election, before taking office, President Andrs Pastrana, with broad national backing, moved boldly to engage Colombia's guerrilla forces in peace negotiations. But since then, Mr. Pastrana's public support has eroded as guerrilla intransigence stalls the peace process, the economy struggles through depression, and violence and corruption remain unchecked. Clinton's presence alone shows the Pastrana government has succeeded in one crucial area: It has managed to gain the confidence and support of the US, which is reassuring for most Colombians.

But beyond boosting the government's authority, Clinton can and should state in no uncertain terms that Washington fully supports Pastrana's peace initiatives and that US assistance to Colombia is designed to help make those initiatives work - not primarily to fight the US battle against drugs. Clinton, however, must also convey to Pastrana that the US commitment depends on his government taking decisive action to curtail human rights abuses and to sever the Colombian Army's remaining ties to the country's brutal paramilitary organizations. Clinton and his advisers could help in another way - by figuring out how to extend to Colombia the benefits of recently approved Caribbean trade legislation - or, better yet, by considering how to bring Colombia (along with Chile) into the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. In the long run, enhanced trade with the US will be more valuable to Colombia than continued aid.

Third, other countries in Latin America and Europe will be closely watching what Clinton says in Colombia. The support of these countries is needed to help Colombia settle its conflicts. Many of the countries are suspicious of US motives and troubled by the US focus on military aid and antidrug rhetoric. Like US opponents of the administration's policy, some fear a Vietnam-type debacle. Their political support and financial assistance, which is considered essential to supplement US and Colombian resources, has been lagging. Clinton should make clear that the US understands that Colombia's problems need to be addressed multilaterally - and the US is prepared to work cooperatively with other countries and to accept the common agenda of building peace and achieving reconciliation in Colombia. It must be plain that the US is not pursuing or planning to pursue a military victory in Colombia.

This is a tall order for a single day's work. But, if he succeeds, Clinton will make an enormous contribution to the future of Colombia - and to US interests in Latin American. This is an opportunity to show that the US can respond constructively to hemispheric crises.

*Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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