- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2000

Friday, March 3, with the support of Colombian President Andres Pastrana, we were taken to San Vicente del Caguan, an isolated rural area that has become the heart of the Colombian peace process.

There, as part of a bold gesture by Mr. Pastrana to end the fighting between government forces and the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Colombian government has created a demilitarized zone as a site for talks between the two sides in the country's ongoing internal conflict, now in its fourth decade.

The two sides have agreed to a timetable and a 12-point agenda, and their representatives recently spent two weeks together visiting various European countries so the guerrillas could see a variety of modern social democratic countries, and also to establish mutual trust.

It is foolish to expect an overnight resolution, but after 18 months of gradual progress, there is at least some hope for a settlement. Mr. Pastrana thought we two American businessmen might help, by candid conversation with the guerrilla leaders.

We accepted this invitation because our work with American inner city charities has driven us to take any potentially effective step to protect our children from the scourge of drugs. Pre-teens are almost universally exposed to these poisons, which have spread violence, addiction and death throughout our country (more than 50,000 Americans are victims of drug-related deaths every year.) Because we recognize the horrors drugs have visited on our people, we believe all of us have a duty to respond whenever and wherever possible. Thus, the unusual meeting of two American businessmen with the self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist FARC leader, Manuel Marulanda Velez (who now recognizes that communism is dead), and his chief military commander, Raul Reyes, who was recently quoted in the European press as declaring war against the United States.

We talked mostly about the subject we know best: the new global economy, and how it will affect Colombia, a country of extraordinary human and natural resources that has prevailed even amidst a mass insurrection and the plague of drug trafficking. Despite the long war, foreign investment has reached $13 billion over the past five years, and until last year's recession, the GDP had risen each year without interruption since 1932.

We told the guerrillas that they could benefit from globalization, but only in a peaceful environment. No sensible businessman is going to pour money into a country riven by war, and the guerrillas themselves will remain on the fringes of a world that does not need them to generate wealth. We stressed that capital no longer flies a national flag, that it simply flows into those places where it earns the highest possible risk-adjusted returns, and that it will not return to Colombia until terrorism, kidnapping and violence have largely disappeared. We also told the guerrillas we believed President Pastrana truly wants peace, but we reminded them that he has asked the United States to help defeat the drug traffickers and narco-terrorists.

Under these circumstances, the guerrillas have a quickly narrowing window of opportunity: Mr. Pastrana will make an honest peace if that is possible, but wage a forceful military campaign if it unfortunately proves necessary.

To our surprise, in the course of four hours of animated conversation, the guerrillas insisted they were also against drugs, and said they wanted to end drug cultivation in Colombia. They maintained they could and would cooperate in ending drug trafficking, and swore they were willing to make these promises directly to the U.S. Congress and to the American people. Mr. Reyes not only denied he had "declared war" on us, but does not consider himself our enemy, and he lamented the recent killings of three Americans, branding it a "mistake," of the same sort as our bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

Finally, Mr. Marulanda promised that the FARC will support a transition from coca to commercial crops in Colombia, and hoped that American investment would return after peace is formalized.

We were quite prepared to accept the guerrillas' insistence that the Colombian government had long neglected its remote areas, and that the insurgency was fueled by legitimate resentment. Yet, as our presence demonstrated, the Pastrana government is determined to change these policies, and we believe it deserves cooperation from the guerrillas and support from Americans.

The administration has asked for $1.6 billion for Mr. Pastrana's Plan Colombia, a comprehensive plan to eradicate illegal crops and fund commercial ones, enable the Colombian government to destroy the drug traffickers' processing laboratories and distribution networks, and provide security for citizens who only cooperate with the terrorists because death is the only current alternative.

We obviously do not know if Mr. Marulanda and Mr. Reyes are sincere doves, or whether they can ultimately deliver their battle-hardened fighters to a peaceful life in legitimate enterprises. But we do believe our leaders should listen to them, and give them a chance to become part of the solution, instead of being eternally branded as the irredeemable cause of the problem.

If peace can be negotiated, many of the guerrillas can be brought into civil society, the government, aided by the FARC leaders, can gravely weaken the drug trafficker, and the rule of law can be spread into areas previously dominated by the rule of brute force.

And what a blessing this would be for us. Most of the cocaine in America comes from Colombia. If we can deliver a decisive blow to the Colombian traffickers, we will turn off the bulk of the huge drug shipments to our streets.

We know the various "peace processes," from Northern Ireland to the Middle East, have not yet produced their long-promised results. But we think Mr. Pastrana's hardheaded yet open-minded approach is worthy of our support. We hope Congress passes the administration's program, and shows Mr. Marulanda and Mr. Reyes that we are prepared to work with even the most committed guerrillas, provided they truly join our common cause.

James Kimsey is founding chief executive officer CEO and chairman emeritus of America Online Inc. Joseph E. Robert Jr. is chairman and CEO of J.E. Robert Companies.

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