The Miami Herald
Aug. 07, 2002

Colombia set for inauguration, strife

New leader a hard-liner in struggle against rebels


  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.


  ''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.