October 30, 1998
'New era' in U.S.-Colombia ties spotlights concern

                  BOGOTA (Reuters) -- Colombians voiced guarded relief Thursday over the
                  new era in their country's ties with Washington after four years of friction
                  under scandal-plagued former President Ernesto Samper.

                  But some commentators said the warm welcome President Andres Pastrana
                  received on his state visit to Washington this week -- the first by a
                  Colombian president since 1975 -- highlighted concern about Colombia
                  more than any real desire to change the country's drug-tainted image abroad.

                  An editorial in Bogota's El Espectador newspaper said the pomp and
                  circumstance surrounding the visit was more like a pat on the back for a
                  patient with some infectious disease than the embrace of a friend.

                  Foreign Minister Guillermo Fernandez de Soto spoke triumphantly of
                  Colombia's "takeover of Washington" in an interview with local radio early

                  The red carpet laid out for Pastrana was in "recognition of the strategic
                  importance of Colombia," he said, adding that this had been forgotten amid
                  the scandal that erupted over charges Samper bankrolled his 1994 election
                  campaign with drug money.

                  "The people of the United States are saying that they feel very satisfied about
                  this new era in Colombia and there is a great spirit of collaboration and
                  helpfulness," he said.

                  El Espectador, in its lead editorial headlined "A Great Relief," welcomed
                  what it called the end of "an absurd period in which two friendly and close
                  nations fell into a labyrinth of distrust that blocked dialogue and

                  Colombia is still the world's largest producer of cocaine and a leading source
                  of the heroin sold on U.S. streets. The United States is the world's largest
                  market for illicit drugs.

                  And Pastrana's visit, which comes against the backdrop of growing U.S.
                  involvement in Colombia's drug war, also comes amid mounting U.S.
                  concern about the country's increasingly powerful Marxist rebels.

                  Alluding to those issues -- and to possible concessions to rebels as part of
                  the negotiations with which Pastrana has pledged to end a civil conflict that
                  has taken 35,000 lives in the last decade alone -- El Espectador said there
                  was obviously "serious concern" about Colombia in the United States.

                  U.S.-Colombia ties may be back on a more normal footing since Pastrana
                  took office in August, the newspaper said. But "more than a concession or
                  an attitude of understanding, (this) reflects the negative view of Colombia
                  among the powers that be in Washington. This nation's stability is in danger,
                  and the State Department fears that the illness could be contagious," it

                  Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, a leading political commentator, voiced the same
                  view, saying no head of state could envy Pastrana for the gala dinner served
                  to him at the White House Wednesday night, given the state of the nation he
                  carries on his back.

                  "He (Pastrana) has a clean and decorous image. But this is not the case,
                  unfortunately, with the nation he represents," Apuleyo said.

                  "As it is seen today by the international community, Colombia is a country in
                  rags ... So many disasters overwhelm it, so much blood and disorder splatter
                  its image, that it inspires pity and concern everywhere," he said. "Perhaps the
                  only ones who are unaware of just how far this dismal reputation goes are
                  Colombians themselves."

                  Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who shared the same table with
                  Clinton and Pastrana at the White House dinner Wednesday, said something
                  similar about his country in a famous speech several years ago.

                  "The bad image of the country abroad angers us, but we do not dare to
                  admit that the reality is worse," he said.

                  Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited.