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One-way tickets to better lives

In the first four months of 1999, 65,000 Colombians exited their country.

The lines that once formed outside the trendiest restaurants and night clubs here are all gone now - replaced by lines in front of the United States, Canadian, and Spanish embassies.

A sense of crisis here is fueling this exodus of Colombians (many are purchasing one-way airline tickets for places like New York or Miami). And the flight is indicative of problems that could have repercussions throughout the hemisphere.

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The Colombian economy is at its worst in 50 years. There is deep pessimism, too, over recent mass kidnappings and the prospects for peace in the country's 40-year civil war.

The government announced Tuesday that it's imposing economic austerity measures - slashing the budget and streamlining the state bureaucracy. And it hopes to start talks with guerrillas in the south next week.

But in the first four months of this year, 65,000 Colombians left the country, officials say. They estimate that nearly 1 percent of the population - some 300,000 - could legally leave the country this year, not to mention those settling in new countries illegally.

"It's not exaggerating to say we are in the deepest and most complex crisis of this century," says Juan Manuel Ospina, a senator from the Conservative Party.

The US Embassy in Bogot has registered a 27 percent increase in visa requests over last year. And the potential for mass departures into neighboring countries is even more worrisome to some analysts. "The war has created a huge population of 1 million internal migrants," says Alvaro Tirado, a diplomatic expert and political analyst.

Neighbors Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama have already confronted the Colombian government about guerrilla incursions and cross-border refugees.

Last month several groups of hundreds of Colombians fled into Venezuela, causing "serious" concerns, a diplomat here says. With Venezuela and Ecuador especially in economic turmoil, an upsurge in economic or war refugees would lead to new tensions that would echo across the region.

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"What is happening in Colombia certainly could bring serious consequences for all Latin America," says Roberto Teixeira da Costa, president in Brasil of the Council of Latin American Business Leaders. "Our concern is for South America as a whole, because as we might like to claim that the situation in Colombia is an isolated case. The fact is that [it] sends out negative signals about regional stability."

A year ago, when Andrs Pastrana was elected president of Colombia, this country was brimming with optimism.

After years of apathy at election time, Mr. Pastrana had won a heated three-way race in which voter turnout jumped 20 points from the usual 40 percent level. Taking their cue from a president-elect who made peace after 40 years of war his first priority, Colombians held huge peace demonstrations across the country. There was also a sense of relief that international treatment of Colombia as a pariah state, based on strong evidence that the former President Ernesto Samper had links to the country's cocaine cartels, was over.

But today much of that optimism has vanished. Reasons are varied. First, the idea that Mr. Samper was the bad guy who would take many of the country's problems with him when he left office was destined to lead to disappointment, some observers say. Then despite some recent signs to the contrary, the Army has over the last year has not been able to check the country's two main guerrilla groups' advance.

"A year ago I would have said an eventual military victory by the guerrillas was highly unlikely, but today I see how it might happen," says Bogot political analyst Sergio Uribe. "It's not because they have the military power to do it, but the military will."

A recent poll by the Colombian television network RCN, highlights this lack of faith. It found that 66 percent of Colombians support a US military intervention to curb its problems.

In a country where the strong-arm, take-no-prisoners tactics of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori receive frequent accolades, Pastrana's more conciliatory political style is also faulted. Some media analysts have taken to calling the government "gobierno light," while even the president's political allies are not without criticism. "The country has been at a point where we were ready for a popular mobilization against war and violence," says Mr. Ospina. "But developing that predisposition requires political leadership, and the president came up short."

Yet all of those factors probably wouldn't be enough to explain such a crisis - in a country that has basically been at civil war for four decades - if it weren't for the soured economy. Even through the worst of Latin America's economic turbulence in the 1980s, Colombia was the exception, always achieving positive annual growth rates.

But in the first quarter of this year, the economy shrank nearly 6 percent, with prospects for the rest of the year hardly better. Unemployment surged into double digits. As one US official says, Colombia's mood plunge has several sources including too-high expectations after Pastrana's election, but the basic reason is "it's the economy, stupid."

"The truth is that before, the war and other real problems weren't affecting many people's daily life, but adding the economy has changed that," says Ospina. "It's finally dawned on many Colombians that the country's future is in the balance, and when they don't see any light they say, 'Oh, I'm leaving.'"

While not underestimating the gravity of his country's situation, Mr. Tirado says there are reasons for Colombians to feel optimistic. Recent Army battle victories should reassure Colombians that the guerrillas are not about to take the country, he says. And the number of violent deaths has fallen over the past four years, while recent mass demonstrations in several cities against kidnappings suggest the public is engaged and hanot giving up hope.

"Of course there's an impatience for striking results now," says Tirado, "but there are small signs that should tell Colombians to hold on, we are going in the right direction."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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