The New York Times
January 17, 2000

With Roses, an Ambassador Polishes Colombia's Image


          By PHILIP SHENON

          WASHINGTON -- LIKE most Colombians, Ambassador Luis
          Alberto Moreno-Mejia hates his country's reputation among
          Americans. "I'm sure that if you did a poll, the first thing that would come
          to mind is the association with cocaine," he said. "It's bad for me, and it's
          bad for Colombia.

          I think the self-esteem of Colombians is very much hurt when we are
          perceived this way."

          So last month, the 46-year-old diplomat saw an opportunity to change
          some minds. His ammunition: 20,000 Colombian roses, in shades of red,
          cream, coral, yellow and blush, and the Colombian actor who plays Juan
          Valdez, the fictional coffee grower in the television commercials.

          The roses were sent by air freight to Washington in time for the National
          Symphony Orchestra ball, one of the social events of the season. The
          actor was dressed in a poncho and placed at the entryway to the
          ballroom, handing out vacuum-packed samples of Colombian coffee to
          guests including Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Louis J.
          Freeh, the F.B.I. director.

          The idea was to remind Washington's decisionmakers that Colombia's
          major export to the United States is not cocaine. It is petroleum,
          followed by coffee, followed by cut flowers. "We wanted to show
          people in Washington that Colombia is more than just what you read in
          the headlines," the ambassador said. And he thinks it worked. "I sure
          hope so," he said.

          A more important victory for Ambassador Moreno-Mejia came last
          week, when President Clinton announced a $1.3 billion emergency aid
          package to Colombia to help the government of President Andrés
          Pastrana in its war against narcotics traffickers and the leftist guerrillas
          who control much of the cocaine trade.

          "President Pastrana's inauguration in August 1998 brought to Colombia a
          new spirit of hope," Mr. Clinton said. "But increased drug production and
          trafficking, coupled with a serious economic recession and sustained
          violence, have put that progress in peril."

          Ambassador Moreno-Mejia said the aid package, which still must be
          approved by Congress, was a landmark in relations between Colombia
          and the United States, the largest market for Colombian cocaine.

          "I consider it a turning point because there is a recognition that there
          needs to be burden-sharing in this fight," he told a visitor to his office in
          the Colombia Embassy, one wall dominated by a large portrait of Simón
          Bolívar, the great independence hero of Latin America. "Colombia has
          suffered tremendously for many, many years, and it has been in this fight
          very much alone."

          Mr. Moreno-Mejia is widely praised in the administration and in
          Congress for his tireless lobbying on behalf of Colombia, which is now
          the third largest recipient of American aid, after Israel and Egypt.

          A former business executive and television journalist whose taste in
          clothing runs to Armani and Hermès, he is the picture of a modern
          diplomat. He is equally comfortable conversing in English as in Spanish,
          just as he seems equally at home in Washington as in Colombia, not
          surprising since he was a citizen of both countries until recently.

          The ambassador, the oldest of seven children, was born in Philadelphia,
          where his father was in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania.
          He held both an American and Colombian passport until fall 1998, when
          he was named ambassador by Mr. Pastrana, a friend since they attended
          the same high school in Colombia. The ambassador attended college and
          business school in the United States.

          He was forced to give up his American citizenship shortly after his
          diplomatic appointment was announced; American citizens cannot hold
          diplomatic immunity in their own country.

          He recalled the process: "You go to the U.S. Embassy and you say, I
          want to renounce my citizenship, and they put papers in front of you, and
          you sign all these papers, and they say, why are you doing this? And I
          said, well, it's because I want to represent Colombia in the United
          States." He says he renounced his American citizenship reluctantly, and

          The administration's new aid package to Colombia appears to enjoy
          bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers from both parties
          agree it is needed to save that nation of 38 million people from economic
          and political collapse.

          The drug cartels that dominated the Colombia cocaine industry in the
          1980's have largely disappeared. But they have been replaced by
          guerrillas who use the multibillion-dollar cocaine trade to underwrite their
          insurgency, which advanced last summer to within 30 miles of the nation's

          AMBASSADOR Moreno-Mejia warns that without the aid package,
          which includes money to pay for more than 60 military helicopters for the
          Colombian army and police, there will be "progressive deterioration."

          The American military commitment has alarmed human rights groups and
          historians who see comparisons between the involvement in Colombia
          and what happened in Vietnam a generation ago. But the ambassador
          rejects the comparison. "It's not a military engagement," he said. "This is a
          situation in which you're helping Colombia with the tools so that
          Colombians can solve their own problems."

          He figures he will need to serve at least another year in Washington to
          see the aid package approved and put into effect. After that, he and his
          wife, a Venezuelan economist who was her country's trade minister, plan
          to return to Colombia. His two children from a previous marriage -- a
          15-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter -- are in school in

          A return home would be a novelty in his large family. Mr.
          Morena-Mejia's parents have become American citizens and settled in
          Florida, and five of his six siblings also now call the United States their
          home. But unlike the rest of his family, "I always wanted to be back in
          Colombia," he said. "The best legacy you can leave to your children is a
          sense of country -- and of helping to do something to improve it."

                     Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company