Colombian president's fortunes reverse
Zigzags stoke sense of crisis
BY TIM JOHNSON
BOGOTA, Colombia -- Nearly midway through his four-year term,
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.
`LOSS OF CONTROL'
``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
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
On Friday, the influential El Tiempo newspaper bemoaned what it
poker'' between Pastrana and his opposition in an editorial entitled: Prudence,
Now, three different referendum proposals may consume political
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
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
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,
agenda had been set to discuss sweeping political and economic reforms with the
But nearly four out of five Colombians disagree with Pastrana's
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
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
much to lose to scrap the talks altogether, and that they will likely survive the
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
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.