U.S. wields carrot and stick in Colombia
Mixed signals surround push for peace
CARTAGENA, Colombia (Reuters) -- The United States is heaping praise
on Colombia's fledgling peace process, even as it signals a readiness to take
the leading role in its fight against Marxist rebels.
Those mixed signals to a nation whipsawed between talk about peace and
growing fears of all-out war were voiced by senior U.S. officials on a visit
this week to the historic Caribbean port city of Cartagena.
The officials, led by U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen and Marine
Gen. Charles Wilhelm -- commander of U.S. military operations throughout
Latin America and the Caribbean -- were in Cartagena for a three-day
meeting of defense ministers from across the Americas. The meeting ended
Colombia's role as host country -- a nation corroded at the highest levels
corruption, drug trafficking and a three-pronged war pitting Marxist rebels
against the armed forces and right-wing paramilitary groups -- cast a
spotlight on one of the hemisphere's undisputed trouble spots. But there was
U.S. praise for efforts to end the violence.
"This is a time when the government of Colombia is showing its good will
leaning forward and trying to create the conditions for a good negotiation,"
Cohen told a news conference.
"Clearly we will see how the guerrillas, over the next 90 days or so, how
they react to what we think has been a very positive step by President
(Andres) Pastrana," said Cohen, adding that Washington warmly applauded
Pastrana's peace efforts.
'Announcements of war'
Pastrana, who succeeded Colombia's scandal-plagued former leader
Ernesto Samper four months ago, campaigned on a promise to seek a
negotiated settlement of an internal conflict that has taken more than 35,000
lives over the last decade.
But Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Lloreda, speaking on the
sidelines of the three-day Cartagena meeting, said that Pastrana's peace
overtures had only been met with rebel "announcements of war," and
patience is clearly wearing thin.
Some analysts think South America's second most populous country, which
supplies about 80 percent of the world's cocaine, is headed toward
Cohen did not elaborate on Washington's likely response if peace talks
the rebels should fail.
Calling the shots
But an agreement establishing a so-called "defense bilateral working group"
was signed at the Cartagena meeting, giving Washington broader powers to
call the shots on key military issues between the United States and
Wilhelm said the agreement highlighted the already close ties between the
U.S. and Colombian militaries, and stressed in remarks to reporters that
there were no real restrictions on U.S. military aid to Colombia.
The bulk of U.S. aid -- of which Colombia recently became the world's third
largest recipient after Egypt and Israel -- goes toward counternarcotics
But Wilhelm said it also could be used to fight guerrillas -- since
they work in what he called a close alliance with criminal drug
gangs and are a self-sustaining "narco-insurgency."
Wilhelm, who served as a U.S. adviser in Vietnam, denied that
the United States was getting sucked into another unwinnable
conflict against a deeply entrenched rebel movement, which
now controls about 40 percent of Colombian territory.
But a senior U.S. official stressed the U.S. commitment to combating
insurgents in Colombia -- where Wilhelm conceded that the military lost the
momentum in the guerrilla war long ago.
"We have an interest in helping a democratically elected government protect
itself," said the official, who asked not to be identified by name. "Obviously,
if Colombia is destabilized, over the longer term it has implications for its
neighbors and for the region," he said.
Pastrana ordered the pullout of some 2,000 troops early last month from
area the size of Switzerland in a bid to jump-start peace talks with the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the hemisphere's largest
and oldest rebel force.
But formal talks have yet to begin, due to FARC demands for the pullout
about 100 soldiers still stationed in the largest town in the demilitarized area.
And FARC's chief military strategist, Jorge Briceno, shocked government
officials this week by demanding that troops abandon an additional seven
municipalities just outside the demilitarized zone, saying civilian residents of
the towns would suffer the consequences unless control was effectively
ceded to rebel troops.
"All this talk about peace is going nowhere," one Colombian defense official
said. "It's like that play by Shakespeare, 'Much Ado About Nothing.'"
Copyright 1998 Reuters.