Colombian leader ending term without peace
BY FRANCES ROBLES
BOGOTA - The building that once housed Colombia's peace negotiators
has fallen victim to vandals, where hundreds of posters hyping harmony
dumped in a glass-filled heap marked by graffiti and ashes.
This place in Los Pozos was once the symbol of a bright future
for a war-wracked country whose president, Andrés Pastrana, was
bold enough to hope
for something different. Now the trashed and abandoned headquarters can symbolize something else: the finale of a presidency that staked everything
on ending a war that only worsened.
''It's quite sad -- he started on such a positive note,'' said
Bert Ruíz, author of The Colombian Civil War, speaking about Pastrana,
who steps down this
week as leader of Colombia. ``Pastrana is someone who tackled a job he wasn't big enough for. He promised hope, dared to dream of peace and
wasn't able to deliver.''
Pastrana is ending a four-year term based heavily on bringing
a negotiated end to a 38-year civil conflict with the Revolutionary Armed
Colombia, leftist rebels whose insurgency claims 3,500 lives a year. Pastrana campaigned on the promise to make peace, but walks away from the
nation's highest office with negotiations hopelessly stalled, a stepped-up battlefield and a populace that now welcomes war.
But analysts agree that in spite of 25 percent job approval ratings,
history will be kind to the former television newscaster, councilman, senator
mayor. Pastrana gets credit for being duped by the FARC for so long and so often that it maligned the rebels' public image at home and abroad.
Colombians, experts say, will eventually thank Pastrana for taking exaggerated steps toward reconciliation.
Pastrana's perceived gaffes and blunders had a huge outcome.
Tired of watching their president make concessions and get none back, Colombians
elected former Antioquia governor Alvaro Uribe to replace him. Uribe, always against Pastrana's peace plan, handily swept the May 26 election with a
get-tough platform. With the public-opinion pendulum now swung in his direction, Uribe takes office Wednesday.
''Pastrana put a lot into peace because that's what the people
wanted,'' armed forces commander Fernando Tapias said in a recent interview.
strengthened the will and spirit of the armed forces. The new president won't have to work as hard.''
Like most Colombian leaders, Pastrana was a man of privilege.
His father, Misael Pastrana, was president in the early 1970s, while the
Andrés was in high school.
He grew up to graduate from law school and become a dashing television
anchorman and eventually mayor of the nation's capital. He was kidnapped
drug lords in 1988. He lost his first shot at the presidency in 1994.
As president-elect in 1998, he trekked to the Colombian jungle to meet with FARC leader Manuel Marulanda.
Even before taking office, Pastrana took bold chances. To lure
rebels to the negotiating table, he astounded the nation by announcing
that he would
hand over a 16,000-square-mile safe zone where rebels could do as they wished without the presence of soldiers, police or state authorities to stop
Then Pastrana packed his negotiating team with Conservative Party
allies, shutting out anyone outside his inner circle, bungling the process
start, experts say.
''The FARC probably had the sense that they were talking to a
bunch of Pastrana's friends from college,'' said Adam Isacson, a Colombia
expert with the
Center for International Policy in Washington. ``The result was that trust wasn't built.''
Throughout three years of talks, the FARC continued its guerrilla
warfare. Kidnappings, bombings and political killings rose, as did the
right-wing paramilitary forces determined to defeat the FARC if the armed forces couldn't.
Rebels, critics say, took advantage of a president fixed on reaching an accord, even if he lacked a clear strategy to do it.
''If he knew what he was doing, he certainly made it look like
he was improvising,'' Isacson said. ``I don't think he made a fool of himself.
The FARC came
out looking worse because of it.''
The president abruptly ended the peace process Feb. 20, hours after the FARC hijacked a domestic airliner and kidnapped a senator aboard it.
''Mr. Pastrana's government never had a peace policy,'' the FARC said afterward. ``Instead, it was a true strategy of war against the people.''
Pastrana supporters say his legacy will include unprecedented
strides made in repairing battered relations with the United States. When
office, his predecessor, Ernesto Samper -- accused of accepting $6 million in drug money to finance his campaign -- was barred from entering the United
States. Midway through Pastrana's term, the Clinton administration had hatched a $1.3 billion aid package for Colombia's drug war.
Pastrana is also praised for bringing his anti-FARC message to
an international stage, succeeding in having the group labeled ''terrorists''
Colombia, and having its members tossed out of Mexico, where they once moved about freely.
Although Pastrana gets credit for averting a financial crisis
such as the one that brought Argentina to its knees, Colombia's unemployment,
at 17 percent,
is still among Latin America's highest. Economic growth has been stagnant.
''He could have done what every other Colombian president did:
ignore the FARC and put other issues on the agenda,'' said Luís
ambassador in Washington. ``He will be remembered in the short term like he was perhaps naive, that he didn't realize the kind of enemy he had.
``I'd say they'll eventually say this guy was very valuable in making steps toward peace.''