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Colombia Elite Back Away From Besieged President

Colombia's President Ernesto Samper Pizano is becoming increasingly isolated as the country's 20-month-old drug scandal enters its final stage.

In recent weeks, both church leaders and prominent businessmen have joined the ranks of those demanding the president resign.

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The number of detractors from Mr. Samper's own Liberal Party has also grown as they fear being tarred with the same brush as a president accused of taking millions of dollars from the Cali drug cartel for his reelection campaign.

"There are several important sectors of society coming together to present a more consolidated block of opposition" to Samper, says Francisco Robles, political science professor at Javeriana University in Bogota.

Finance Minister Guillermo Perry Rubio offered his resignation yesterday, the fourth Cabinet minister to do so this year, adding to Samper's isolation. He cited the country's deepening political crisis as his reason for stepping down.

Last weekend, leaders from the Liberal Party met in Spain with Vice President Humberto de la Calle in what many observers see as a clear distancing from Samper. Under the Constitution, Mr. De la Calle, also Colombia's ambassador to Spain, would take over if Samper resigned. Pro-Samper Liberals deny the visit is anything more than a discussion of possible solutions to the political crisis.

"This is a goodwill mission," said president of the Senate Julio Cesar Guerra, a Liberal. "It is simply to listen, ask questions, and put some solutions on the table."

But others said the trip was to negotiate a dignified exit for Samper. "The president wants to negotiate an exit and guarantee that he goes down in history, not as a corrupt president but as a great democratic reformer," said Rep. Roy Barreras, a Liberal close to one of the leaders.

Under this deal, Mr. Barreras said, Samper wants De la Calle to promise to continue the government's social policies. He must agree to keep several Cabinet ministers in their posts and not replace other political appointees. De la Calle would also agree to introduce reforms to the political parties and campaign financing.

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Any deal would take place once the president is absolved by Congress. The congressional committee investigating Samper closed its investigation Friday and is expected to report to the House of Representatives in the next two weeks.

Samper's own speeches recently also have hinted at a resignation. But some observers think it could be a deliberate tactic by the president.

"It could be a sort of trick," says Alejandro Reyes, professor of political science at the National University in Bogota. "If Congress finds him innocent, he could take it to mean he has enough support to continue governing."

But other events in the coming two weeks could preclude Samper's staying in power and render a deal unnecessary.

The Supreme Court is due to decide the fate of Foreign Minister Rodrigo Pena-Pardo, Communications Minister Juan Manuel Turbay, and Interior Minister Horacio Uribe Serpa, who are accused of covering up the drug scandal. If any of the ministers is arrested, it will be a blow to Samper.

Losing Mr. Serpa would be especially difficult for the president. "Serpa has been the shield of the government, the spokesperson for Samper during this whole process," says Professor Robles. The charismatic Serpa is the government's key intermediary with the legislature. Until now, observers have been skeptical that the Congress - many of whose members benefited from the alleged drug funds - would condemn Samper. If Serpa were arrested, it could have a psychological effect on the legislature.

"If [Congress] feels the president is going to fall in the end, they will probably abandon him," said Liberal Rep. Ingrid Betancourt. The vote in Congress will be secret, leaving open the possibility of votes against Samper by Liberals.

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