A Legacy in Progress

By Nora Boustany
Friday, June 30, 2006

Former Colombian president Andrés Pastrana , who has survived nine assassination attempts, multiple death threats, a kidnapping and a controversial career, is back in the trenches.

He is working on the same issues, but this time as Colombia's top diplomat in Washington.

As ambassador, Pastrana is focusing on the second phase of a multibillion-dollar plan to free Colombia from the control of drug cartels, on boosting trade with the United States and on keeping Washington engaged in the rehabilitation of his country after decades of terror by entrenched networks of drug traffickers.

Maybe it is all about reshaping his legacy.

Pastrana left office in 2002 with a 22 percent approval rating. His bold first step toward a peace process with the drug traffickers, an initiative that held out the possibility of a truce and face-to-face negotiations, concluded with a whimper. Enraged Colombians viewed their president as too soft and too aristocratic in his approach and accused him of giving too much to the cartels in return for nothing.

His successor, Alvaro Uribe , changed tactics. He went on the warpath against the guerrillas, using the army and U.S.-supplied equipment. Uribe's approval ratings jumped to 74 percent and remain at around 71 percent in his second term, according to recent polls.

Only time will tell for Pastrana. His fate was always intimately intertwined with that of his countrymen.

"People don't realize that Uribe is the continuation of Pastrana," the former president said when asked about his low approval ratings. "At this moment, what matters is the country, not the status."

The son and grandson of presidents, Pastrana said he always knew he wanted to follow in their footsteps. "It is in my blood," he said.

* * *

Every 15 minutes, the door to his cell squeaked open in the stillness. A hooded gunman would appear, take aim, finger the trigger and cock his rifle. The attempts to break Pastrana down went on all day.

It was the third week of January 1988. Pastrana, a dashing television anchorman turned Bogota mayoral candidate, had been kidnapped from his office by gunmen working for the drug cartels. He was pushed into a car, then into the trunk of a second car and delivered to another group. He was kept in a locked cell in Medellin, a city in the heart of coca country.

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