When President Clinton travels to Cartagena, Colombia, next week, it will be the most important of his half-dozen or so visits to Latin America during his two terms.
Following the approval two months ago of $1.3 billion in security assistance to Colombia, Mr. Clinton's visit underscores the priority Washington assigns this nation of 40 million people. Colombia demands that kind of attention. The world's largest supplier of cocaine, Colombia today is trapped in a bloody guerrilla war. It also suffers extensive criminal violence, widespread human rights violations, a distressed economy, and an increasingly alienated and distrustful population. Continuing deterioration of Colombia's situation puts the future of the nation's democratic institutions at risk and threatens to spread instability to five bordering countries.
Clinton will spend just one day in Colombia, but this is enough time for him to pursue three vital policy objectives.
First, he must try to make clear to Americans what the US has at stake in Colombia and why the US should make a long-term commitment to that country. The argument is only partially about drugs. More attention now must be paid to how US support can enhance prospects for peace, reconciliation, and the rule of law, in part by helping to turn Colombia's Army into a more professional force. Clinton also needs to explain to taxpayers why progress on these fronts in Colombia is important for democracy across the hemisphere and for US-Latin American relations. Clinton should show he is aware of the concerns that Colombia may become a Vietnam-style quagmire for the US. He can address these concerns head-on - by citing Colombia's impressive history of democratic governance and leaving no doubt that US troops will not be used in combat.
Second, Clinton has the opportunity to bolster the Pastrana government in Colombia and promote its peace-making efforts. Right after his election, before taking office, President Andrs Pastrana, with broad national backing, moved boldly to engage Colombia's guerrilla forces in peace negotiations. But since then, Mr. Pastrana's public support has eroded as guerrilla intransigence stalls the peace process, the economy struggles through depression, and violence and corruption remain unchecked. Clinton's presence alone shows the Pastrana government has succeeded in one crucial area: It has managed to gain the confidence and support of the US, which is reassuring for most Colombians.