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U.S. TACTICS BACKFIRE IN COLOMBIA

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Since Colombia is the world's leading producer of illegal cocaine and the United States is the biggest consumer, the two countries must cooperate with each other in the continuing war on drugs. Unfortunately, relations have sunk to a regrettably low point, thanks to some heavy-handed U.S. pressure.

Colombia's new president, Ernesto Samper, was sworn in Aug. 7. But he is being viewed with suspicion by U.S. authorities after the discovery of two tape-recorded telephone conversations that indicated strong financial support for Samper's election campaign from the Cali drug cartel.That does not necessarily mean that Samper will be doing the bidding of the powerful drug cartel. In fact, he has reacted to such suggestions with outrage. But the tapes still have tainted the president-elect.

Shortly after Samper's election - by all accounts, free and fair - the U.S. reacted to the story of the tapes by bluntly warning that Colombia would face serious consequences if it did not continue to wage determined war against cocaine traffickers. The message apparently came from the White House.

Such a warning was both presumptuous and offensive and Samper predictably reacted in indignant fashion to what he termed an "insult" to his integrity. Samper emerged as the patriotic Colombian defending his honor against a meddling United States. Washington would have been better off keeping quiet.

This was followed July 15 by a 94-0 U.S. Senate vote to cut off all assistance to Colombia unless President Clinton certifies that the Bogota government is investigating corruption and taking concrete steps to fight the Cali drug cartel. That public slap infuriated Colombia and sent Bogota officials rushing to the airwaves to defy U.S. pressure.

Clinton opposes the measure and the House has not yet acted. It would be best to let the measure die a natural death.

In another snub, Colombia's national police chief, Maj. Gen. Octavio Vargas Silva, visited Washington, but top officials of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration refused to meet with him on the grounds that they believed Vargas to be "corrupt." In that case, why was he invited in the first place?

Even if the Cali cartel does not have any undue influence in the Samper government - a still-open question - the drug lords must be rubbing their hands with glee over the way the United States is managing to offend so many people in Colombia.