Almost a year ago, in the steamy jungles of southern Colombia, then President-elect Andres Pastrana surprised his countrymen by posing for a photo with Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the hemisphere's oldest and largest guerrilla force.
Pastrana's brave and bold move was meant to demonstrate his intention to end the 35-year-old civil war that has taken more than 35,000 Colombian lives. Today, representatives of the government and the insurgents will begin negotiations to achieve a peace that could pave the way toward resolving the country's many problems. The U.S. government should support these negotiations with diplomacy and other resources.
Achieving peace will not be easy. The drug traffickers, the paramilitaries and others have profited from the absence of the rule of law in Colombia. They will resist any diminution of their power. The Clinton administration has been a staunch supporter of Pastrana's peace initiative, and it's in Washington's interest to help where it can without pushing. A negotiated peace in Colombia offers America a long-term answer to a big part of the drug menace.
But this view is not universally shared in Washington. A small but powerful group of conservative Republicans, including Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (N.Y.), Rep. Dan Burton (Ind.) and Sen. Jesse Helms (N.C.), believes it knows what's best for Colombia. Helms and company have placed their bets on a continued militarized anti-drug policy despite its evident failure. Even after Colombian police crushed the Medellin and Cali drug cartels, the trade continues, now pursued by smaller groups that are harder to crack than the cartels.
Colombia does not need more guns from America. Instead Colombia's leadership must reach out to the deprived in the jungles and the highlands and offer them an opportunity to build communities based on a fair standard of living. Pastrana deserves this chance.