The Washington Diplomat / May 2001
By Larry Luxner
Foreign petroleum executives are routinely threatened -- even kidnapped -- by thugs posing as guerrillas with a cause. Yet Colombia holds so much promise that multinationals continue to pour billions of dollars into oil and gas exploration. Tourists are warned to stay away from Colombia, even as 240,000 cruise-ship passengers a year walk untroubled through the Spanish colonial ruins of Cartagena.
Former President Ernesto Samper was expressely forbidden from visiting the United States because of his suspected ties to drug dealers -- yet the U.S. remained Colombia's largest trading partner, with annual bilateral imports and exports exceeding $10 billion.
And today, Samper's successor, Andres Pastrana, is seen by Washington as a key ally in the war on drugs, even though Colombia faces growing threats from right-wing paramilitary groups, and peace talks with leftist guerrillas appear to be going nowhere.
Perhaps no South American republic gets as much negative press or is as misunderstood in the United States as is Colombia, whose 40 million inhabitants make it the continent's second-most populous nation after Brazil.
The wave of bad publicity reached its height in 1996 and 1997, when the Clinton administration twice "decertified" Colombia's efforts to crush the drug trade and finally revoked Samper's visa for life, pointing to his alleged acceptance of $6 million in campaign money from the Cali cocaine cartel. That decertified status lumped Colombia with such pariah nations as Afghanistan, Burma, Iran and Syria -- sparking outrage throughout Latin America, and demands that the U.S. do something about its own drug problem before punishing other countries.
"When I first came here, Colombia was decertified and the previous president couldn't get a U.S. visa," says Luís Alberto Moreno, who was named Colombia's ambassador to the United States in September 1998. "A lot has changed since then."
Since his election, Pastrana has become a frequent visitor to Washington. He met with President Clinton in the White House three times in 1998, twice in 1999 and twice in 2000. In February, he and President Bush met for the first time.
"The U.S.-Colombian relationship is at an all-time high," says Moreno. "A lot of this has had to do with the election of Andres Pastrana, who is a very courageous man. The fact that Pastrana won with the largest voter turnout in Colombian history gave him a very strong mandate. He's gone farther than any president in history, and he's deeply committed to peace."
Moreno is an easygoing, likeable man who speaks fluent English and appears much younger than his 47 years would suggest. He assumed his current job as ambassador at the time of Pastrana's inauguration, though the Philadelphia-born diplomat had to renounce his U.S. citizenship to be considered for the job.
A close political ally of Pastrana, Moreno managed his friend's unsuccessful 1994 presidential campaign and played a key role in Pastrana's 1998 campaign as well.
Throughout his career, Moreno -- a graduate of both Florida Atlantic University and Arizona's Thunderbird University -- has done everything from selling Daihatsu jeeps and Mack trucks to producing award-winning children's TV programs.
During the administration of former President CÈsar GavirÌa, Moreno was minister of economic development, formulating government policies in housing, tourism, industrial development and privatization. Before assuming his current post, Moreno was the telecom advisor and private consultant to Bogota's Grupo Sarmiento; he was also associated with Westsphere Capital Inc., a private-equity fund specializing in South America.
"My diplomatic experience has all been on the job," said Moreno, interviewed last month over coffee -- Colombian, of course. "The way you practice diplomacy is very straightforward. That makes it easier for someone like me, who is very direct."
Moreno typically spends much of his day on Capitol Hill, where he's observed that "the level of ignorance" about Colombia has diminished substantially in recent years.
"More than 100 members of Congress have been to Colombia in the last four years," he says proudly. "That helps build a basis of knowledge, because nothing is better than seeing for yourself. Unfortunately, all this perceived political risk discourages the kind of massive U.S. investment Colombia needs."
Moreno is proud to point out that nearly half of his country's trade is with the United States. Total U.S. investment in Colombia comes to around $8 billion, and Colombia ranks as one of the top 25 export markets in the world -- despite the tremendous economic obstacles now being faced by the Pastrana government.
"When Samper came to office in 1994, the fiscal deficit was 1.5%, unemployment was 7% and the economy was growing at 5% a year," said Moreno. "When he left, unemployment was 16%, the economy was growing at only 0.6%, and in 1999 -- for the first time in 70 years -- it actually contracted, by 4.5% And Colombia has a 20% unemployment rate, which is the highest ever in Latin America."
The bad news isn't just economic. Colombia ranks as one of the world's most violent countries, with 25,000 murders and 3,500 kidnappings recorded last year alone.
"Kidnapping is at an all-time high," concedes Moreno, who makes no attempt to sugar-coat his country's desperate situation.
Over the last four decades, untold hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in political strife, terrorism and civil unrest. In the last decade alone, at least 40,000 people have died. Drug-trafficking has tainted nearly every level of society, and despite eradication efforts, production of cocaine is exploding in Colombia -- already the largest source of cocaine in the world. In a recent poll, over 40% of adults surveyed said they'd leave the country permanently if they could.
Indeed, three million Colombians have taken refuge in neighboring Venezuela, and nearly two million live in the United States -- principally in New York and South Florida.
"The only way to correct that is to resolve our problems peacefully," he said. "If we can do that, I believe those Colombians who left will begin to come back. It's not only the rich who have fled. Middle-class people are also leaving, and that's very sad."
Asked what Pastrana is doing to try to stop fighting among government forces, leftist insurgents and right-wing paramilitary groups, Moreno didn't mince words.
"Let me be very frank: Colombia is a violent country and will not stop being a violent country overnight," he said with a bluntness rarely expressed by diplomats. "The reality is that for the last 40 years, they have not been able to control the government, and our government has not been able to destroy them.
"These insurgents want political representation, not only on a national level but also on a regional level. They also want the government to provide for peasants who grow cocaine to substitute other crops," he explained. "It's a very tough issue to deal with. I believe that, despite this, there really is an opportunity for peace."
Pointing to a large wall map of his country, Moreno explained just how difficult things are at the moment.
"The Bogota-Medellín-Cali triangle is where most of Colombia's economic activity takes place," he said. "Eastern Colombia has 55% of the land but only 5% of the population. A good part of this area is rainforest."
Moreno described how the Pastrana government -- which has staked its reputation on ending Colombia's 37-year-old civil war -- is trying to negotiate with leaders of Colombia's two largest leftist rebel groups, the 17,000-member Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the 5,000-member National Liberation Army (ELN), both of which control large swaths of territory in this rainforest area and in zones close to Colombia's major cities.
Two years ago, Pastrana handed over to the FARC a demilitarized enclave the size of Switerland as an incentive to jump-start peace talks. And in March, the government pulled out 3,000 troops from an ELN stronghold that was widely seen as the first step toward temporarily ceding the ELN a territory the size of Rhode Island.
Rather than bring peace, however, these concessions have sparked a bloody escalation in the deadly conflict.
In mid-April, ELN leaders suspended peace talks for the second time in two months, accusing Pastrana of squandering chances to reach a peace deal before August 2002 presidential elections. The ELN blamed the collapse on Pastrana's inaction amid a three-week-old siege by right-wing paramilitary forces, which are reportedly helping the government wipe out the ELN once and for all.
Dealing with the right-wing paramilitaries, in fact, may be much more difficult than fighting the leftists, since those groups claim they're really on the government's side. Villages are often caught in the crossfire, and reports of whole families being machine-gunned or hacked to death are becoming more and more common.
According to Pastrana's own human-rights commission, the number of people killed by illegal armed groups had jumped 75% so far this year, with right-wing militias responsible for most of the killings. As many as 529 people have allegedly died at their hands so far this year, while FARC has killed 190 people and the ELN around 50. All of these groups are said to be involved in drug-trafficking to finance their guerrilla activities.
"Our president is tackling the problems in a serious way. Colombia is beginning to turn the corner," said Moreno. "As a society, we have basically repelled narcotrafficking. Fifty members of Congress have gone to jail for financing their campaigns with drug money. The cartels were basically destroyed."
In addition, he said, since Pastrana came to office, 24 Colombians have been extradited to the United States to face drug-smuggling and other charges. "This all shows a change," he explained. "This is the result of people understanding what drugs do to them."
Despite the limited progress, Moreno laments the impact all this violence has had on Colombian society.
"We have one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America," he said. "Colombia is very rich in culture. Before the violence began, Bogota was known as the Athens of Latin America because the quality of its writers and poets."
Asked about Pablo Escobar, the leader of the infamous Medellin drug cartel whose grave has become a shrine for many locals, Moreno had this to say: "Yes, he did a lot for the poor people, but he also did a lot of horrible things. He had thousands of people killed. It is true that drugs have permeated every level of society, but society said enough -- and that's our biggest victory."
The ambassador says he's grateful for U.S. support of Pastrana's controversial anti-drug program known as Plan Colombia. Of the program's total $7.5 billion price tag, the United States is funding $1.3 billion -- with another $4.9 billion coming from the Colombian government and the rest from other countries and multilateral lending institutions.
"Colombia has asked the world community for tools to do the job," says Moreno. "It's the answer to many of the problems Colombia has. But Plan Colombia is controversial because it has a heavily weighted counter-narcotics side. Before it was just about eradicating coke, but now the United States will spend a substantial amount to help fund alternative development programs."
Moreno also praised President Bush for showing a "real commitment" to expanding the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and boosting the provisions of the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA), which gives Colombia and four other poor Andean nations substantial tariff breaks on cut flowers and a variety of other exports.
"Today, the ATPA generates 110,000 jobs in Colombia. Depending on how much it's enhanced, we could double that," he said, adding that "Colombia is ready to move on an FTAA not in 2005, but in 2003."
On the other hand, Moreno says he's totally opposed to the certification process -- an annual ritual in which Washington grades other countries on their drug-fighting efforts. "Certification doesn't work," he says. "In our case, the 1996 and 1997 decertifications were meant to censure the Samper administration, but it ended up punishing the people. Both the Export-Import Bank and OPIC [Overseas Private Investment Corp.] were banned from doing business with Colombia. The politics of this was very bad."
Moreno, who may harbor some political ambitions himself down the road, says there's virtually no chance the Bush administration will decertify Colombia -- in some part because Bush himself is against the whole certification process.
"There is no reason," he says, "to ever go back to those horrible times."