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
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
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
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
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
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.