Colombia's Modest Backslide

June 30, 1994

The election of Ernesto Samper as president of Colombia may irritate its relations with the U.S. Mr. Samper is not as zealous about the war against drugs as the U.S. would wish. Nor is he as dedicated to free market economic reforms.

A 43-year-old economist running for the Liberal Party of outgoing President Cesar Gavrila, Mr. Samper still carries three bullets from an assassination attempt in 1989 attributed to the Medellin drug cartel. That narco-terrorist organization, allied with leftist guerrillas, declared war on the Colombian state and lost. With the death of its leader Pablo Escobar, it is effectively dismantled.

But the Cali drug cartel helped the government defeat its Medellin rivals and as a result became the world's largest cocaine supplier. It tries to join the government through infiltration and bribery, not fight it. Reputedly, it favored Mr. Samper over Andres Pastrana, a former mayor of Bogota once kidnapped by the Medellin cartel, whose policies were not so different. Mr. Pastrana accused Mr. Samper of taking Cali drug money for the campaign, which Mr. Samper denies.

President Gavrila defeated the Medellin cartel with the army, but went after the Cali cartel with "the politics of surrender," a form of plea bargaining that has brought lenient sentences to cartel members. Mr. Samper is dedicated to maintain that policy, as was Mr. Pastrana. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration takes a dim view of it. Mr. Samper says that at the first hint of pressure he will challenge the U.S. to reduce consumption, prevent money laundering and halt the sale of drugs used in cocaine manufacture.

But Mr. Samper promises to slow down or reverse Mr. Gavrila's privatization of state industry and abolition of agriculture subsidies. Colombia's trade has picked up as a result of lowering barriers with Latin American countries. But inflation is 23 percent and unemployment is growing.

The president-elect would slow the dismantling of trade barriers, to protect Colombian business, and maintain agricultural subsidies. He has promised to create jobs. This violates American and IMF orthodoxy. Yet nothing he can do is likely to dispel the gloom his countrymen feel over upsets of Colombia in the soccer World Cup. Some wounds no political promise can heal.

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