The Miami Herald
May 23, 2000

Colombian president's fortunes reverse

 Zigzags stoke sense of crisis


 BOGOTA, Colombia -- Nearly midway through his four-year term, President
 Andres Pastrana has suddenly hit rough going, facing demands from the
 opposition Liberal Party that he step down early, sagging public support, and a
 crisis in peace talks with rebels.

 Making matters worse is a sudden slide in Colombia's currency and a sharp rise
 in borrowing costs that analysts ascribe to political uncertainty.

 Pastrana, a telegenic former television reporter, has only exacerbated a sense of
 crisis with a series of zigzags on key recent issues, analysts say.


 ``What you see in the last few weeks is a loss of control, both in the political
 sphere and in the peace process,'' said Juan Carlos Rodriguez, a social scientist
 at the Institute of Political Studies at the National University.

 It's been a remarkable turn of fortunes for Pastrana, 45, who was lauded just a few
 months ago for his bold moves to engage Marxist rebels in peace talks, his solid
 handling of the economy and his warm relations with the United States.

 One of the blunders that led to Pastrana's current misfortunes came in early April,
 when he called for a national referendum to dissolve a Congress discredited by a
 burgeoning scandal over bogus contracts.


 The proposal broke the ``Great Alliance'' of Liberal and Conservative legislators
 that Pastrana had relied on to govern since his 1998 election. And it fortified the
 drifting opposition Liberal Party.

 Liberal leader Horacio Serpa portrayed the government as equally at fault for
 funneling money to the graft-ridden Liberal leadership of Congress, and turning
 focus away from the wrongdoing.

 ``It is incredible but the political rivalries in Colombia often mean that one can win
 by saying, `You, too, are a crook,' '' said Antanas Mockus, a former mayor of
 Bogota and critic of the Liberal and Conservative parties that have alternated
 power for the last 150 years in Colombia.

 Pastrana dumped his interior minister, Nestor Humberto Martinez, and his senior
 private secretary May 8 as his conflict with Congress worsened.


 In a sign that Pastrana had lost the upper hand, Liberal leaders last week said
 they would dissolve Congress only if Pastrana, too, had his term cut short for
 early elections.

 On Friday, the influential El Tiempo newspaper bemoaned what it called ``blood
 poker'' between Pastrana and his opposition in an editorial entitled: Prudence,

 Now, three different referendum proposals may consume political debate for
 several months, while Pastrana fences with a hostile Congress.

 ``Congress won't cooperate with anyone as long as it's threatened with being shut
 down,'' Rodriguez said.

 If that weren't problem enough, Pastrana announced last Tuesday the suspension
 of a round of peace talks May 29-30 with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
 Colombia (FARC), accusing the rebels of a heart-wrenching murder of a rural dairy
 farmer who was blown to bits a day earlier when a bomb was placed around her
 neck to press her family to pay a $15,000 extortion.

 The Pastrana government has provided no firm evidence to support its accusation
 against the FARC, and family members of the slain woman, Elvia Cortes, say
 they believe guerrillas are not responsible.

 Even the armed forces and police have backtracked from initial claims that they
 had solid evidence of rebel responsibility in the bombing.

 Barely two months ago, the peace process appeared to be on firm footing.

 FARC commanders had toured Europe with government peace envoys, and an
 agenda had been set to discuss sweeping political and economic reforms with the

 But nearly four out of five Colombians disagree with Pastrana's conciliatory
 posture toward the guerrillas, polls show, and the bombing brought out dissenting
 voices within the Pastrana government.

 ``Military officers are speaking out more. And the trade and industrial guilds are
 beginning to oppose the peace process. This is forcing Pastrana to take hasty
 actions, like suspending the peace talks,'' Rodriguez said.

 The suspension marked the first time Pastrana has canceled talks with the FARC
 since they began in late 1998, bringing hope that a 36-year-old guerrilla war that
 has bled the nation might come to an end.

 Other analysts said both the FARC and the Pastrana administration have too
 much to lose to scrap the talks altogether, and that they will likely survive the
 current crisis.

 But uncertainty has now tumbled into the economic markets, causing the peso to
 slide 9.5 percent against the dollar so far this year, briefly reaching a low of 2,100
 pesos to the greenback on Friday.

 In a weekend report, the influential National Association of Financial Institutions
 lamented the sudden economic deterioration.

 ``The possibility that a series of long-postponed fiscal measures won't be taken
 because of a bitter clash between political elites in this country . . . has struck
 fear into bankers and investors here and abroad and cast doubt on the viability of
 the economy,'' the report said.