Why Colombia's President Masterminded Meeting of Stock Exchange Chief and Guerrilla Leader

Why would the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange travel to a remote rebel stronghold in the wilds of southern Colombia to meet with a Marxist commander of the last major leftist insurgency in the hemisphere? And why would the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), welcome this capitalist icon with open arms?The answer to this riddle has little to do with ideology, and a lot to do with efforts by a courageous but embattled president to deal with the prime obstacle to peace and economic modernization in Colombia -- the country's economic elite.Last week's meeting was arranged by President Andres Pastrana, a free-market advocate who is seeking a negotiated end to the civil war that has devastated his country for the past three decades. Pastrana wants to integrate Colombia, the third most populous country in Latin America, into the global economy. Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and Chile are already well along that path, while Colombia, hobbled by war and an unhealthy dependence on drug trafficking revenues, is stagnating, as reflected by a slumping stock market and this week's 9% devaluation of the peso.Pastrana is no mushy-headed liberal. He has refused to recognize a smaller, more moderate insurgency known as the National Liberation Army (ELN), precisely because it lacks military muscle. The FARC, on the other hand, has scored an impressive series of victories over government forces in the past year. Overcoming the FARC militarily is out of the question for the foreseeable future, and any effort to do so would spell further economic and political ruin.Yet negotiating with "communists" is anathema to much of Colombia's upper class. The guerrillas and their sympathizers have been demonized and dehumanized, as they were earlier in many other Latin American countries. This has allowed the army, with support from businessmen and landlords, to form paramilitary death squads that slaughter suspected leftists, including women and children, as though they were vermin. According to the State Department and human rights groups, such groups are responsible for about two-thirds of the thousands of political murders in Colombia.Showing great personal courage, Pastrana has tried to break this pattern of dehumanization and violence. Last November, he ceded an area the size of Switzerland -- about 3.5% of the country -- to the FARC on condition that they negotiate peace in good faith. Since then, he has fired two generals linked to the paramilitary groups, issued warrants for the arrest of paramilitary leaders, and arrested generals and colonels responsible for past massacres and assassinations.These actions have gained him credibility with the rebels and with much of rural Colombia, but at the cost of support in modern urban Colombia. A recent poll conducted by the daily El Espectador in the capital, Bogota, found 71% of respondents opposed ceding land to the FARC. In May, Pastrana's defense minister resigned in protest.That is where the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange enters the picture. Pastrana was scheduled to visit the exchange earlier this month, but had to cancel because of the political crisis back home. When NYSE president Richard Grasso asked if there was anything he could do to help, Pastrana said yes, he could come to Colombia to meet FARC commander Raul Reyes. And he did.Like the Pope's visit to Cuba, the point here was to break old molds. If a symbol of international capitalism can meet with a Marxist guerrilla leader, why can't Colombian business executives do likewise? If even a seasoned guerrilla can see the advantages of integrating Colombia into the new global economic order, why can't Colombia's titans of industry follow suit?It is brilliant political theater -- and it also plays to a U.S. audience. Many members of Congress are still see only "communists" and "drug traffickers" when they think of Colombia. That makes them all too ready to vote for military aid -- aid that sets back the prospects for peace and economic development. What better way to change such attitudes than a reminder from the chairman of the NYSE that "communists" are not the prime impediment to capitalist progress in Latin America's third most important economy? Andrew Reding is senior fellow for hemispheric affairs at the World Policy Institute in New York.

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