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Colombia's Leader Cleared Of Drug-Cartel Links, but ...

Colombian President Ernesto Samper Pizano may be officially off the hook over charges of links to drug traffickers, but he can't yet breathe easy. The year-long political crisis continues, with many Colombians angry and the Clinton administration glowering.

Mr. Samper was cleared after the Colombian Congress voted 111-to-43 Wednesday that there was insufficient evidence to formally accuse the president of taking $6 million from the Cali cartel for his election campaign. Samper was also cleared of cover-up charges and political irresponsibility.

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The decision, split along party lines, came as no surprise in Colombia, where the congressional process was viewed as a farce.

"Those who absolved the president are politicians who received money from the cartels and committed the same crimes as the president," says Rep. Ingrid Betancourt, a fierce critic of Samper from his own Liberal Party.

Twenty-four members of Congress are themselves under investigation for ties to drug trafficking, and seven are already behind bars. In addition, several members of Congress received money from the Liberal Party central campaign funds. To condemn the president would be to condemn themselves, saysMs. Betancourt.

"It doesn't matter what the Congress decides, the political crisis will continue," says Andres Franco Vasco, political science professor at the Javeriana University in Bogot.

Samper wasted no time trying to bounce back. His office says he would announce measures today that news reports say would include harsher laws against drug trafficking, stricter controls over campaign funding , and a government of national unity.

Colombia has been split by the drug scandal. Sectors of the Conservative Party support Samper, while members of his own party demand he resigns. Some business leaders have called for the president to go; others back him.

One group has tried to unite Samper's adversaries. The Movement for National Reconstruction held a meeting recently that drew 4,000 people from all sectors of society. Demanding Samper's resignation, the group is threatening an "entrepreneurial strike," whereby businesses would stop working in an attempt to bring the country to a halt.

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The last entrepreneurs' strike, in 1957, brought down Colombia's last military dictator. But the Movement for National Reconstruction will have to garner more support if it is to oust Samper, who is popular among the poor.

Meanwhile, Samper will look for a way out of the political crisis. "The president will try and stay in power by looking for an agreement with all the political parties," predicts Sen. Jaime Arias, president of the Conservative Party.

Samper also favors a referendum to let the people decide if he should stay in power. Latest opinion polls show that 31 percent of Colombians think that Samper should remain in office, 28 percent believe he should resign, and 41 percent are undecided.

A cloud of suspicion has hung over Samper since he took office in August 1994, when audiocassettes were released to the media of drug traffickers discussing a donation to his campaign. The situation worsened for the president in January this year when his former defense minister and campaign manager Fernando Botero Zea accused him of accepting the drug money.

A crucial but unknown factor will be the reaction of the United States government to the Colombian Congress's decision. Political observers say that in an election year, the Clinton administration cannot afford to look faint-hearted on drugs.

The administration has already taken a hard line with the Colombian government. Last month, after a Colombian congressional committee investigating Samper recommended the full Congress shelve the case against the president, the State Department issued a strong statement criticizing the decision and questioned the committee's credibility.

In March the US government "decertified" Colombia as a country genuinely committed to the fight against drug trafficking. The move brought with it few direct economic consequences for Colombian exporters, but it generated uncertainty in the business community.

The US could decide to expand its trade sanctions under the decertification process. It could cut trade benefits enjoyed by certain Colombian exports.

Eighty percent of Colombian flower exports are destined for the US, and they enter at zero tariff. But the US could remove this perk and force flower exporters to pay an 8 percent tariff that would cost them $35 million a year.

But to do this could merely fuel anti-American sentiment and boost Samper's popularity.

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