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Colombia taps former president to head embassy in Washington
The Washington Diplomat / May 2006

By Larry Luxner

Occasionally, the Washington ambassador of a country goes on to become its president or prime minister. But the other way around?

That's the unusual case with Andrés Pastrana Arango, who ruled Colombia from 1998 to 2002 and is now his country's top diplomat on Embassy Row.

Pastrana, 51, got his current job after predecessor Luís Alberto Moreno was chosen to head the Inter-American Development Bank.

"The tradition in Colombia is that our embassy in Washington has been the launching pad for presidential candidates. My father [Misael Pastrana Borrero] was named ambassador in 1969, and a year later, he returned and ran for president," Pastrana told the Washington Diplomat recently over cups of strong Colombian coffee.

"For me, it's different, having been president and then the ambassador. I've been in public service for so many years now, that it's just another way of serving my country. It was impossible to say no when President Uribe offered me the job."

That would be Alvaro Uribe Vélez, Colombia's tough-talking head of state — and one of Washington's few remaining allies in Latin America.

In recent years, voters in one country after another have elected candidates at odds with U.S. policy on everything from free trade to the environment. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez — a growing thorn in the side of the Bush administration — counts among his friends Argentina's Nestor Kirchner, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Brazil's Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, Cuba's Fidel Castro and Uruguay's Tabaré Vazquez.

Last month, populist politician Ollanta Humala won a preliminary presidential election in Peru on an anti-globalization, anti-imperialist platform. And in July, the leftist mayor of Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is likely to emerge a winner in Mexico's presidential elections.

"In Colombia, democracy has been solid for many years. The positive thing about this [populist] trend is that people are going back to vote. It's important that democracy is back in the region," Pastrana said.

"In the case of Bolivia, I think Evo Morales has a big opportunity. If he really understands what's happening in the region, he could take advantage of the fact that all of us want to help Bolivia get out of its current crisis, even the United States."

Bucking this trend, Uribe has steadfastly supported Washington's free-market policies even as the rest of South America turns its back on the Bush administration.

In fact, Uribe's surprise ambassadorial appointment of Pastrana — who was once among one of the current president's most vocal critics — was widely seen as an attempt by Uribe to keep the aid flowing. Colombia is now the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance in the world after Israel and Egypt; at last count, Colombia was getting around $1.3 billion in annual assistance.

Yet few South American countries get as much negative press or are as misunderstood in the United States as is Colombia, whose 44 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 then-President Ernesto 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.

Pastrana, who as a journalist had crusaded against the drug trade, entered politics in the 1980s. In 1988, while campaigning for mayor of Bogotá, he was kidnapped by the Medellín drug cartel. After a week in captivity, he was freed by police in a dramatic rescue. He went on to win that election, landing a Senate seat three years later and quitting in 1994 to run for the presidency. Pastrana lost that election to Samper in the second round of voting,

Almost immediately after his election as president, Pastrana became a frequent visitor to Washington. He met with Clinton in the White House three times in 1998, twice in 1999 and twice in 2000.

The following year, then-ambassador Moreno told the Diplomat: "The US-Colombian relationship is at an all-time high. 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."

Pastrana, who was a respected journalist in Colombia, as well as the founder of a political magazine and anchorman of a daily nationwide news program, says he's happy to be in Washington as ambassador.

"This is my first and only appointed post since I've been in politics," he said. "I've always been in public office, but was elected for all my posts. I've never had a boss before."

In fact, Pastrana says his most important accomplishment as president "was politically defeating the guerrillas. For more than 45 years, we had a problem with the guerrillas, and everybody thought the only way of defeating them was military. So for the first time, we started working on the political side."

"When I began my term as president, many European parliaments had opened the doors to the FARC [Colombia's largest guerrilla group]. They were seen as a Robin Hood, fighting the government. By the end of my term, FARC was on the U.S. and EU terrorist list. That was a big defeat for them. At the same time, we strengthened our armed forces as never before in our history, and we brought economic growth to Colombia."

Pastrana's biggest disappointment, he said, was that "I worked three years to try to consolidate the peace process. I was elected to make peace, and I did everything possible to acheive peace in Colombia. Unfortunately, FARC broke that process."

After leaving office, Pastrana moved to Spain — "for security reasons," he told us — and remained there, working on his autobiography, until Uribe tapped him to be Bogotá's man in Washington.

Having been president certainly helps Pastrana in his current job.

"Most of the people I knew who dealt with Colombia on the Hill are still there," he says. "My day starts very early. Most of the time we have breakfast with members of Congress and their staffers."

Pastrana spends much of his time on Plan Colombia, a comprehensive program he launched as president to combat narcotrafficking, increase the presence of the Colombian government in regions controlled by drug dealers and advance peace talks with both FARC and another guerrilla group, the ELN.

Since its inception, Bogotá has received $4.3 billion in U.S. aid under the Plan Colombia banner — in the form of Blackhawk helicopters, cropdusting planes, weapons and radar equipment.

"When we started Plan Colombia, we told the U.S. that in four years we would eradicate 50% of the coca crop. By last year, we had eradicated between 52% and 55%, or around 50,000 hectares," he said. "Our goal was achieved. That's why you've started to see that on the streets of the United States, the price of coca is going up."

Pastrana added: "One of the ideas behind Plan Colombia was to show the world — not just the United States — that the problem of drugs is not only Colombia's. That's why we talk about the theory of co-responsibility. If the United States doesn't do its job in controlling consumption, and Colombia eradicates drugs, then someone else will have to sell them the drugs."

In late February, Plan Colombia got a major boost with the Bush administration's announcement that it had concluded talks for a landmark trade agreement with Colombia.

Currently, U.S. exports to Andean countries face an average tariff of 9% to 10%. At the same time, the U.S. market has virtually no tariffs on imports from these growing economies under the 1991 Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA). The aim of the new FTA with Colombia is to fix this imbalance by making the trade relationship reciprocal and mutually beneficial.

"This deal opens the door to huge opportunities for American business and agriculture in Colombia," said Daniel W. Christman, senior vice-president for international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "The US-Colombia free trade agreement is one of the best tools imaginable to help our friends in Colombia lock in their progress in the fight against narcotrafficking and terrorism by developing sustainable economic alternatives to the drug trade.”

In 2005, U.S. trade with Colombia reached nearly $14 billion, while U.S. trade with the Andean countries as a whole has surged by nearly 80% over the past three years. Under ATPA alone, Colombia's garment and textile exports to the United States has grown from $300 million to nearly $1 billion.

According to Christman, "the agreement will immediately eliminate over 80% of tariffs on U.S. manufactured exports, with other barriers phased out over a few years. It will also strengthen intellectual property and investor protections, open services markets, and enhance transparency in government procurement."

Pastrana enthusiastically supports an FTA between the two countries, noting that "for us, the FTA is fundamental. We always said we needed trade, not aid. That's what we're looking for."

The president-turned-ambassador points out that, even with narcotrafficking and terrorism, the Colombian economy has grown by an average 4.5% a year.

"Imagine that without the violence and terrorism, we'd be at 7-8% GDP growth. And that would solve many of Colombia's problems," he said. "We need the money. We're not a rich country. but with trade, we will have funds to have our own army and pay our own institutions. This is our biggest challenge."

Another big challenge is changing Colombia's negative image, he said, "because the perception of many Americans is still one of drugs. We also want to bring tourists back to Colombia, as well as the cruise lines, but the State Department still has us under a travel warning. We're working very hard, and we hope that one of these days they'll lift the warning."

Even so, Pastrana admits he's got a long, hard road ahead of him.

"The cartels have been destroyed, but the drug business continues," he said. "We're fighting the strongest enemy in the world."

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