Nora Boustany

Colombian Envoy's Title Is New, but Mission Is Same

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By Nora Boustany
Wednesday, July 5, 2006

As Colombian President Andr?s Pastrana drove back from the remote jungles and highlands after a historic meeting with guerrillas linked to the drug trade in the summer of 1998, he caught a glimpse of a low-flying eagle.

The image of the bird gliding alongside his car -- "silent and dignified in an undaunted flight" -- served as a lasting reminder of a day that would forever alter the course of Colombia, Pastrana wrote in his memoir, "La Palabra Bajo Fuego," which was published in Spanish last year in Colombia. Its title means "The Word Under Fire."

He knew that peace was possible in Colombia, a country wracked by violence perpetrated by Marxist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and thriving drug traffickers, but he realized that the path to it would be "long and tortuous" and require tremendous patience, wrote Pastrana, who left office in 2002 but is back in the fray as Colombia's ambassador to the United States.

Pastrana's leadership in the process was boosted by his instrumental ambassador at the time, Luis Alberto Moreno , now president of the Inter-American Development Bank, and his resourceful planning minister, Jaime Ruiz .

On the American side, it was a serendipitous alignment of opportunities: a keen State Department, a Clinton White House flush with surplus money, and a Capitol Hill looking ahead to the 2000 presidential election.

Pastrana was the executor, Ruiz the planner and Moreno the bridge-builder. Moreno worked the Hill then, as Pastrana is doing now, with dogged determination, sometimes spending all day there. When hesitant members of Congress came forth with a complaint, he called Pastrana right then and there on his cellphone. And Pastrana took the calls.

"I really believe it was a team effort. I saw an opening and the possibility to run with something to create a momentum. But without them in Bogota, this would all still be theory," Moreno said in a telephone interview from Peru last weekend. "It was an ambitious program. I consider myself lucky. Pastrana had a big belief we could deliver on this. Everything that needed to happen, he realized it."

In 1999, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott expressed concerns to Moreno about what was happening in Colombia. Moreno told him to write a letter expressing his concerns to President Bill Clinton and proceeded with a Colombia strategy to engage both sides of the aisle.

Clinton and Thomas Pickering , then assistant secretary of state for political affairs, saw the letter as an opening for them to map out effective policy on Colombia.

The outcome of the U.S. and Colombian efforts was Plan Colombia. The United States has injected $4.5 billion in military assistance as part of the $7.5 billion project, which is partially funded by Colombia and backed by 30 European countries.

As a result of the plan, educational and social programs improved, but the economy slipped.

Colombians judged Pastrana as an upper-class jet-setter with a penchant for hobnobbing with royal families, a man not known for rolling up his sleeves like the millions who were living in poverty. Yet unlike the scandal-plagued administration of his predecessor, Ernesto Samper , Pastrana remained clean.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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