Colombia faces deepening political crisis
BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) -- Colombia faced its most serious
political crisis in years Thursday as government opponents slammed plans
to shut down Congress because of a corruption scandal in which they say
President Andres Pastrana shares much of the blame.
The heated atmosphere was reminiscent of the 1996 scandal over charges
Pastrana's predecessor, Ernesto Samper, used Cali cartel cocaine money to
bankroll his campaign. Some veteran political observers believe Pastrana could
lose his job over the latest scandal.
It erupted two weeks ago when the government launched a probe into more
550 shady contracts, worth millions of dollars, that were endorsed by the House
of Representatives -- including one worth about $49,000 to build a new toilet.
Another contract, worth $56,990 and awarded just before the clock struck
midnight on New Year's Eve, was ostensibly signed to iron out millennium bug
problems in the House.
Independent lawmakers, meanwhile, have reported an alleged $3.6 million
in the Senate involving the theft of office furniture, official vehicles and funds
from public coffers.
Critics say the government investigation has backfired and left Pastrana
political quicksand, since most of the unbudgeted money funneled into Congress
was approved by the finance ministry and allegedly used to curry political favors.
That, in turn, has awakened widespread suspicions that a planned referendum
July, in which voters would be asked if they support revoking the current
mandate of Congress, is a smokescreen to cover up the country's pork barrel
The watchword of Pastrana's campaign was "change," and he repeatedly vowed
to root out the corrupt practices that have long corroded the highest levels of
government. He has, until now, relied on dissident members of the main
opposition Liberal Party who back his ruling coalition to push key legislation
Liberals, with a majority in Congress, have led the charge against Pastrana
he proposed shutting it down as part of a "war against the corrupt" in a surprise
national address Tuesday night.
"They're playing with fire," former President Alfonso Lopez said Thursday,
when asked about the referendum which must still be approved by Congress.
"This is the result of the system President Pastrana's government adopted
the start, in which it has built an artificial majority (in Congress) through payouts
made to Liberals willing to join the ranks of the government," he said.
Many politicians have hailed Pastrana's bid to dissolve Congress and hold
elections for new lawmakers in October. But Lopez, who called the government
weak and increasingly unpopular, dismissed it as "a political game" aimed only at
boosting support for the troubled Pastrana, whose handling of the economy and
peace talks with Marxist rebels have been widely criticized.
"It's not impossible," the Liberal Party's elder statesman added in one
interviews with local media, when asked if the referendum might force Pastrana
to leave office.