Colombia

Colombia's war to last as long as rural poverty

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By Jason Webb
BOGOTA, Colombia, July 27 (Reuters) - Colombia will never end its 41-year-old war without providing land for poor peasants now tempted to become rebels or grow cocaine crops, a left-wing contender in next year's election said.

"The Colombian conflict has its deepest roots in the countryside, and without winning over the peasants we are never going to solve that conflict," said Antonio Navarro, a former leftist guerrilla running in May's presidential election.

The only way to defuse a war claiming thousands of lives a year is an agrarian reform to give economically viable land to peasants currently tempted to become rebels or plant coca, the raw material of cocaine, the Colombian senator said in an interview this week.

"If we don't do that, we can send in more army brigades, more helicopters, and we're never going to end the conflict," he said in a jab at President Alvaro Uribe, who has increased military spending and boosted troop numbers by a third.

Uribe's get-tough policy against Marxist rebels, which has the enthusiastic backing of the United States, is popular among Colombians and will make him a hard candidate to beat if he is allowed to run for a second term.

No big polling organizations have surveyed voting intentions for May, but all polls show Uribe would win with more than 50 percent if the Constitutional Court approves a law letting presidents serve more than one term.

Since Uribe took office in 2002, soldiers have pushed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, away from cities, the number of Colombians dying violently each year has fallen by a third and kidnapping by more than 80 percent.

But military analysts agree that the FARC, which has about 13,000 fighters, is still largely intact and expensive efforts to crush the cocaine trade by spraying coca crops appear to be stalling, according to U.S. government figures.

"We have sprayed a lot, but (coca) area has fallen very little. We have to do a lot more to improve our relationship with peasants, to offer them alternatives to coca and offer to relocate them," said Navarro, whose speech is blurred by a grenade blast that damaged his jaw when he fought with the now-disbanded M19 guerrilla army

Navarro, who also lost a leg in the 1985 attack, said he would apply a tax on land if elected, a move aimed at encouraging landowners to hand over idle property to peasants.

Agrarian reform is unlikely under Uribe, who is a landowner, the former rebel said.

"He owns thousands of hectares, and I'm not even going to mention his family. He's a rancher, so naturally, he's not going to do that," Navarro said.

Navarro, a senator from the Democratic Pole party, has run for president twice before.

Navarro would also like to renegotiate aid to Colombia from the United States, which has provided more than $3 billion in mainly military assistance aimed at the cocaine trade since 2000. He said he would end what he called indiscriminate spraying of coca crops, which is central to U.S. strategy.

"Of course we have to accept U.S. aid," he said. "But we have to talk about ways of making it more effective."

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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