Colombians running for presidency shun guerrillas' blessing
BY JOHN OTIS
BOGOTA, Colombia -- Just a few days before Colombia's 1998 presidential election, newspapers ran a photograph of a Marxist guerrilla leader posing with an aide to candidate Andrés Pastrana.
Strapped to the rebel's wrist was a Pastrana-for-president watch.
The photo, analysts say, made it clear that the guerrillas preferred to deal with Pastrana, who was campaigning on a peace platform, and helped him win the election.
Now, in the run-up to May's presidential vote, none of the candidates want the rebels' endorsement. Contenders are taking hard-line positions against the guerrillas, who have been waging war for 37 years.
``Whoever the guerrillas favor, the people won't vote for,'' said Hubert Ariza, a political advisor to Horacio Serpa, the presidential candidate for the opposition Liberal Party who is leading in most polls.
Serpa this weekend offered the most dramatic rejection of the guerrillas yet by any of the presidential candidates. He took a bus into southern part of the country that is being held by the nation's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to hold a rally protesting guerrilla abuses inside the zone.
Pastrana withdrew all government troops from the Switzerland-size region in 1998 to coax the FARC to the peace table. At the time, many Colombians were eager to begin talks that could end the nation's long-running civil war.
PEOPLE NOW IMPATIENT
Now, however, many people are outraged by the behavior of the guerrillas and are growing impatient with the peace process.
The rebels are kidnapping civilians, extorting businesses, blowing up oil pipelines and launching attacks against remote towns and villages even as they talk peace with the Pastrana government. Negotiations have been held inside the guerrilla zone for almost three years now, but little progress has been made.
``It's clear that Pastrana's approach has not worked out as people had hoped, and the candidates sense that they need to adopt a tougher line'' toward the guerrillas, said Michael Shifter, a Colombia expert at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington public policy institute.
By traveling to the FARC enclave, Serpa hopes to put pressure on the rebels that will lead to progress at the negotiating table and fewer rebel abuses inside the zone. The FARC has used the sanctuary to train troops, hide kidnapping victims and grow coca, the raw material for cocaine.
Pastrana has indicated that he will renew the status of the FARC zone, which expires next Saturday.
Other presidential candidates are also taking a tough stance toward the rebels.
Alvaro Uribe, an independent and former state governor known for his law-and-order policies, says the FARC must stop kidnapping people and committing other crimes in order for peace talks to continue.
A third major candidate, former foreign minister Noemi Sanin, also an independent, has slammed the FARC as well.
ROLE FOR GUERRILLAS
Many observers predict, however, that the FARC will play a major role in next year's presidential election no matter how loudly the candidates criticize the guerrillas.
Serpa's caravan to FARC territory highlights the rebels' political influence, says María Isabel Rueda, an independent legislator.
``If you need to go all the way down there to make a speech, it
is because, just like in the last elections, the FARC will be a key factor
in the choosing of the next
president,'' Rueda wrote in the Bogotá news weekly Semana.
FARC leader Manuel Marulanda, who backed Pastrana in the 1998 election, has invited all of the presidential candidates to discuss politics with the guerrillas. But, so far, there have been no takers.
Camilo González, a former government health minister and a peace activist, points out that the presidential elections are still a long way off. The first round is scheduled for May. If no candidate wins a majority, the two top vote-getters will meet in a June runoff.
If the peace process gains momentum, González expects the candidates to soften their rhetoric. Both the government and the FARC are discussing the possibility of a six-month cease-fire, for instance.
Such a truce, González said, ``would be a huge step forward.''
``It would also refute the argument of hard-liners who say that the peace process is like a stationary bicycle that never goes forward,'' he adds.