With Roses, an Ambassador Polishes Colombia's Image
By PHILIP SHENON
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.
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."
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."
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 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
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
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."
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