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Business anxious over Clinton's move on Colombia
The Washington Times / March 1, 1996

By Larry Luxner

MEDELLIN, Colombia -- With thousands of jobs and billions of dollars at risk, businessmen awaited the Clinton administration's decision today on whether Colombia has done enough to fight the drug trade to avoid a cutoff of trade and other benefits.

The annual ruling comes just two weeks after Colombia's prosecutor-general, Alfonso Valdivieso, formally charged President Ernesto Samper with accepting up to $6 million from the Cali cocaine cartel to finance his 1994 election campaign. It also comes in the fact of new charges by U.S. congressional committee that dozens of senior executive branch officials and members of the Colombian Congress are on the payroll of the cocaine and heroin cartels.

A negative ruling would require the United States to delay loans from such institutions as the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank's International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which could seriously hurt foreign investment. The United States would also have to consider cutting off privileges under the Andean Trade Preference Act of 1991, which saves Colombia between $50 million and $60 million in tariffs every year. Trade between the two countries is valued at $7 billion a year, involving such products as cut flowers, ceramics, coffee, bananas, textiles and leather goods.

Finally, depending on the evidence, Washington could suspend electronic banking transfers between the two countries -- a move that would cripple the Colombian banking system.

"I hope the U.S. government will have the sense to distinguish an economic problem from a political one," said Medellín Mayor Sergio Naranjo Pérez. "Colombia has made a tremendous effort in the fight against drug-trafficking and the destruction of fields and laboratories. But in an election year, you lose all objectivity."

Clinton could opt for a third alternative: decertification, but with an indefinite waiver of any penalties due to U.S. vital or national security interests.

At present, Colombia is "conditionally certified" by the U.S. government, as are a handful of other Latin American and Asian nations. Yet businessmen throughout Medellín -- whose very name was synonymous with drugs until the Cali cocaine cartel replaced it in importance about three years ago -- worry that Clinton, wanting to appear as tough on drugs as his Republican opponents, will decertify Colombia completely, without looking at the evidence. Both Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Charles Grasssley, R-Iowa, are demanding immediate action, with Grassley saying last week that Clinton would be making "a serious mistake" if he continued Colombia's waiver.

"This could have terrible consequences," says Francisco Piedrahita Echeverri, executive president of the Medellín Chamber of Commerce, whose upbeat projection of 4% economic growth for 1996 was issued before the certification debate began dominating headlines in this attractive city of 2.5 million. "How can it be that in the late 20th century, one country is telling another what to do?"

The concern is equally palpable in Bogota, where one of Colombia's fastest-growing industries -- cut flowers -- is concentrated. A spokesman said a loss of ATPA advantages could cost 75,000 people their jobs.

Sources say the original idea behind ATPA -- drafted five years ago by the Bush administration -- was to create a constituency within Colombia's private sector that would have a vested interest in fighting the country's cocaine cartels. But that hasn't happened, say administration officials who point to Samper's alleged involvement with drug lords and the country's lack of an effective money-laundering law.

Still, U.S. officials acknowledge that Colombia under Samper has done a lot of the things Washington requested, most importantly capturing and imprisoning most of the Medellín and Cali drug lords.

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