In a wave of anti-corruption sentiment, Conservative opposition candidate Andres Pastrana was elected President of Colombia over Liberal Horacio Serpa. Serpa, the former Interior Minister under outgoing President Ernesto Samper, was Samper's hand-picked successor.
Serpa was an ardent defender of Samper in the wake of a scandal in which he was accused of taking over $6 million in campaign contributions from the Cali cartel during his successful race against Pastrana in 1994. The reverberations of that scandal led to the arrest and conviction of over 30 government officials and members of Congress. Samper was eventually absolved of wrongdoing by the congress, in what was widely perceived as a whitewash.
Pastrana's election also paves the way for meaningful negotiations between the government and the rebels who control nearly 50% of the country. Late in the campaign, Pastrana met with rebel leaders, and has repeatedly said that a peaceful, negotiated solution is essential to Colombia's future. Such talk would seem to fly in the face of a burgeoning American policy towards Colombia in which an executive order banning the sale of high-tech weapons to the region has been lifted and the Republican-controlled Congress has put pressure on the Clinton Administration to send more weapons and military aid to Colombia.
Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group told The Week Online, "Pastrana's statements have been very positive with regard to peace and negotiations, and it's very important that U.S. policy back those efforts. There is certainly a window of opportunity with the momentum from the election. And while there have been previous efforts at peace, there are several factors that indicate that now may be a better time. The violence has been greater, people are tired, and there is a broader mobilization than there has been in the past.
"But U.S. policy doesn't seem geared toward encouraging peace. There are a number of American politicians, led by Senator Benjamin Gilman (R-NY), who are very narrowly focused on sending arms to fight the drug war. As a matter of fact, just today (6/26) the approval went through for the $36 million in helicopters. Not the Blackhawk helicopters that Gilman seemed so intent on providing, but upgraded Hueys." (See http://www.drcnet.org/wol/44.html#copters.)
"The violence that is taking place in Colombia is appalling. The paramilitaries, in particular, are out of control, and every time that the U.S. tries to do something to insure that aid does not go into the hands of human rights abusers, it goes awry. It's just impossible to draw those kinds of lines down there. It will be interesting to see what kind of a role the U.S. plays in any peace efforts. Our best hope is that there is a debate going on within the Clinton administration, and that those who would like to foster peace efforts can win out over those who insist on further arming the conflict."