Colombia set for inauguration, strife
New leader a hard-liner in struggle against rebels
BY FRANCES ROBLES
BOGOTA - Colombia braced itself Tuesday for the inauguration
of President-elect Alvaro Uribe, an outspoken foe of insurgents who have
fought the government for
nearly four decades and are expected to greet the new chief executive with a renewed escalation in fighting.
The 50-year-old former governor will be sworn in today as leader
of this South American nation of 40 million people, where the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia
has already stepped up a months-long wave of terror attacks on small airports and big cities.
Already blamed for an assassination attempt against Uribe earlier
this year, the FARC has criticized the new leader for his hard-line views,
particularly proposals to
double the size of the military and enlist a million civilian crusaders to help combat rebels.
''It's likely that the FARC will make its presence known with
diverse acts around the country, such as acts of sabotage and urban violence
to create a tense climate on
inauguration day and the weeks afterward,'' said military analyst Alfredo Rangel. ``It keeps the economy stagnant, and it's an efficient and economical way to cause
great damage at little risk. People expecting immediate results against them will be frustrated.''
For his part, Uribe said Tuesday that Colombians ``should not expect miracles, but instead work, work and work harder to get the motherland ahead.''
Uribe takes office more than five months after the collapse of
a three-year peace process he always opposed. In the past days, guerrillas
have attacked a small airport
215 miles northeast of Bogotá and planted bombs in Medellín, Colombia's second-largest city. To avoid a strike on the inauguration ceremony, the ritual was moved
indoors and, even reporters are barred from attending.
The FARC, which began 38 years ago as a rebel group with a Marxist
agenda and became powerful by protecting coca growers and drug traffickers,
claims to support
social justice in a nation that widely neglects its rural areas. It is expected to launch a heavy hit-and-run offensive in the coming months.
Among the people waiting for fast answers are members of the
Bush administration, which recently offered Colombia more military aid
in its fight against the FARC. A
delegation from Washington led by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick that includes drug czar John Walters and Otto Reich, the State Department's top Latin
America official, will attend the inauguration.
''The U.S. will give Uribe some space and some money with the
clear understanding that he'll have to produce results -- and pretty quickly,''
said a Bush administration
official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. ``People aren't all that optimistic. People realize things are pretty bad.''
The official said there is tremendous skepticism on Capitol Hill,
where members of Congress question Colombia's commitment to its civil war.
Uribe has promised to
increase defense spending and boost its military -- pledges Washington is eager to see completed.
Bush administration officials seem enthusiastic about Uribe's
election, and have paid little mind to criticisms that he has allies among
right-wing paramilitary groups that
illegally battle the FARC on their own terms.
`OPTION OF DIALOGUE'
''As far as Washington is concerned, the option of dialogue has
run its course,'' said Miguel Diaz, with the Center for Strategic and International
Studies in Washington.
``They want to see the Colombian military take its fighting to the FARC.''
Diaz doubts the FARC will wreak havoc in the coming months, because
they no longer enjoy 16,000 square miles of safe territory granted to them
by President Andrés
Pastrana gave away an area one-third the size of Florida to entice
negotiations, but kicked the rebels out Feb. 20 when they hijacked a domestic
airliner and kidnapped
a senator who was aboard.
Pastrana was prohibited by law from seeking reelection.
Just a day after Uribe's victory, the new leader made a conciliatory gesture toward restarting those talks -- provided the FARC lays down its arms.
''The onus remains on the FARC. I think they'll have their hands
full with a spirited, confident, and hopefully more competent Colombian
military,'' Diaz said. ``There are
no hiding places anymore for the FARC.''
Uribe, meanwhile, jumped into the nation's highest office with a slate of political and electoral reform proposals, including reducing the size of Congress by 118 seats.
Uribe said he will waste no time: The first group of civilian anti-terrorist volunteers will start work on Thursday.