Colombia in political and economic crisis

Government to open talks with emboldened rebels


BOGOTA, Colombia -- Almost every day, it seems, there is some piece of bad news to lower spirits and raise fears here. If it isn't one guerrilla group attacking on the outskirts of the capital, it is another hijacking a plane or blowing up the country's main oil pipeline. If it isn't unemployment rising to an all-time high, it is the peso plunging to a record low against the dollar.

Tomorrow, the government of President Andres Pastrana and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the Marxist guerrilla group known to Colombians as FARC, are scheduled to begin formal peace negotiations aimed at ending 35 years of civil conflict.

But a rapidly deteriorating political and economic situation has weakened Pastrana's hand going into the talks, undermining prospects for peace and emboldening the rebels.

Thanks to huge profits from the drug trade and kidnappings, the country's two main guerrilla groups, as well as the right-wing paramilitary death squads that combat them, are better armed than ever, and control nearly half the territory of a country larger than Texas.

A rebel offensive the week before last, launched from a Switzerland-sized demilitarized zone that Pastrana handed over to the Revolutionary Armed Forces last November as a gesture of good faith, forced the government to impose a limited curfew in 10 of Colombia's 32 provinces.

"It's the guerrillas who have taken the reins and are running the country, not the government," complained Ana de Alvarez, a 65-year-old widow living on a pension. "The president is a Boy Scout, too much a nice guy for his own good and ours. I hate to say this, because I voted for him and am a staunch Conservative, but we need someone with a firm hand to impose order and put an end to this horrible insecurity."

In Bogota, home to 7 million of the country's nearly 40 million people, residents are especially shaken by last weekend's offensive by the rebels, which demonstrated that the group has the ability to strike, if only briefly, uncomfortably close to the city. Though FARC controls much of southeastern Colombia, that area is sparsely populated, and the group has traditionally avoided campaigns against urban areas.

"On top of everything else, now we have to live with the constant fear that those bandits can invade at any moment," said Jesus Rojas, a jeweler.

After sounding the alarm about rebel gains, the armed forces reversed course, with Gen. Fernando Tapias, the commander in chief, boasting that his troops inflicted a "resounding defeat" on the rebels. But the popular impression is still that momentum remains with the guerrillas, who have enjoyed a string of military successes over the past four years.

In the past, even when the battles against guerrillas and cocaine cartels were going badly, Colombians could brag about an economic performance remarkable by Latin American standards.

But Colombia is now experiencing what officials describe as its most severe economic crisis in 70 years, the result of low prices for exports, high domestic interest rates and drastic budgets cuts. Figures announced last week show that the economy contracted by nearly 6 percent in the first quarter of 1999, the largest decline in history, and that unemployment has risen to just under 20 percent, another unenviable record.

"Very difficult days lie ahead in which it will be necessary to act with realism and without fantasies," Minister of Finance Juan Camilo Restrepo warned on Thursday when he announced that Colombia had begun negotiating a $3 billion credit from the International Monetary Fund.

Pub Date: 7/18/99

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