Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, carrying details of a $1.3 billion aid program, flew into Colombia tonight for a brief visit designed as a show of support for the beleaguered government of President Andres Pastrana.
Soon after landing in this seaside resort, Albright was hustled away amid heavy security to a dinner with Pastrana and Colombian writer and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. She has scheduled meetings with the president and his staff on Saturday in which they are expected to discuss the two-year aid proposal the Clinton administration unveiled Tuesday to help the Colombian government fight the war on drugs.
Albright is scheduled to travel to Panama later Saturday, and from there to Mexico, before returning to Washington.
Colombia is already the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel and Egypt. But the Clinton administration is concerned that left-wing rebels--who officials say finance their war against the government by charging drug traffickers for protection--have become a powerfully disruptive force in the region, endangering efforts to stem the flow of drugs to the United States.
According to government figures, 80 percent of the cocaine entering the United States comes from Colombia. Officials also say that, with protection from the guerrillas, Colombian cocaine production has doubled in the last four years.
The U.S. aid package would form part of Pastrana's $7.5 billion Plan Colombia. Unveiled last year, Pastrana's plan addresses drug issues, but puts greater emphasis on economic development. With close to 20 percent unemployment, Colombia is going through its worst recession in decades.
Despite Pastrana's efforts to shift the focus of the aid, almost 80 percent of the Clinton administration's package would go toward the war on drugs. Nevertheless, the Colombian president welcomed the aid package, which is expected to add some much-needed confidence to his administration.
Pastrana's approval rating has fallen steadily since he took office in 1998. In addition to the country's economic troubles, the 35-year civil war, which has claimed 30,000 lives in the last 10 years, persists. And the government has made no progress in a peace process that began last year with the country's largest rebel group, the 15,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Albright's visit coincided with another round of peace talks between the government and the FARC. Talks take place every other week in a 16,000-square-mile area in the south of the country that the Colombian military evacuated to jump-start the process.
Some critics of U.S. aid have questioned whether the White House package could disrupt the peace talks. The proposal calls for $600 million to train three anti-narcotics battalions, provide 33 Black Hawk and 30 UH-1N Huey helicopters and supply intelligence equipment for the Colombian army, whose principal target will be the FARC.
Rebel leader Raul Reyes said Thursday the White House package is the first step toward a U.S. invasion.
Some analysts questioned whether the U.S aid package is the right approach. "I don't think any amount of aid can cut cocaine production," said Colombian political scientist Alvaro Camacho, "because the producers just move their fields to different areas."