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By PAUL DE LA GARZA
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2001
MIAMI -- Not long ago, Eduardo Pizano, the chief of staff of Colombian President Andres Pastrana, traveled to China to ask Beijing for its help in solving what he called his country's "horrible drama."
When Pizano revealed his trip Friday during lunch at a packed Miami conference on U.S. efforts to aid Colombia under a program known as Plan Colombia, U.S. diplomats and military officials nearly choked on the chilled salmon. As one State Department official muttered under his breath, "It's not as though they're talking with the Netherlands." Since the United States turned the Panama Canal over to Panama in December 1999, some members of Congress have raised concerns about Chinese intentions in Latin America. A Hong Kong company with close ties to Beijing, Hutchison Whampoa, already operates ports at either end of the canal.
Which is why whenever China starts to sniff around America's back yard, some folks in Washington get nervous.
At the conference, however, the people responsible for America's $1.3-billion stake in Plan Colombia, a world-funded program designed to help the Andean nation fight the drug war, said they hadn't a clue that the Colombians had turned to the Chinese for help.
With a new administration in Washington and an already wary Congress, funding to Bogota -- the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid behind Israel and Egypt -- is coming under renewed scrutiny.
While Colombia says it will need additional U.S. aid to keep from sinking, it is having a difficult time getting financial support for Plan Colombia, a six-year, $7.5-billion package, from two key international components, Europe and Japan.
During his speech at the two-day conference, sponsored by the U.S. War College and the University of Miami, Pizano offered no details about the China trip.
Afterward, as he ate lunch, he got testy with a reporter who asked about it. "I don't know what the big noise is about," he said.
Well, he was reminded, the fact that China makes a lot of powerful Republicans in Washington squirm, particularly when associated with Colombia, a country with a well-entrenched Marxist guerrilla movement.
Didn't Bogota think to consult with the Americans first?
"No," Pizano said. "We're an independent, autonomous country."
In Beijing, the official New China News Agency reported Pizano's "goodwill visit" on Jan. 8 in a five-paragraph dispatch. Pizano met with Wang Zhongyu, the secretary-general of the state council of the People's Republic of China.
"In the new century," Wang said, according to the news agency, "the Chinese government is willing to work with the Colombian government to further develop the friendly cooperative relationship between the two countries."
In a brief interview after delivering his remarks on Friday, Pizano said he had asked China for help developing agricultural programs, particularly in Norte de Santader, a coca-growing province in northeastern Colombia.
"They're studying the possibility," he said.
And to those who would question Colombia's appeal to China, Pizano reiterated the quandary the country of 41-million people finds itself in as the world's No. 1 supplier of cocaine, and, increasingly, heroin.
To make a dent in the multibillion-dollar drug trade and the political instability it has brought, Pizano said Colombia needs international support.
He cited a speech made to the Miami conference in which retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the former American drug czar, said the United States was sharing anti-drug intelligence with the Chinese.
In other words, Pizano was saying, if the United States and China can have a relationship, why not Colombia and China?
As expected, some power brokers in Washington weren't particularly thrilled to hear of Pizano's China travels.
U.S. Rep. Porter J. Goss, R-Fort Myers, chairman of the Select Intelligence Committee in the House, said he, too, was not aware of the Colombia-China contact. He said he was concerned that U.S. officials responsible for Plan Colombia also had been caught unawares.
While not suspecting China of doing anything sinister in Colombia, Goss said he would want to know more about its role there.
"You always have to keep your eye on China, and I don't mean that in a bad way," he said in an interview Monday. "I find them particularly aggressive, and I want to be particularly aware of them."
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., a critic of China, wasn't as generous. He said China should not be expanding its influence in the Western Hemisphere, and if it does, the United States should look at it as a potential threat.
"As far as Colombia asking the Communist Chinese for help in creating a more peaceful situation and ending a conflict, it's like asking a pyromaniac to help with a fire," he said.
"This is ridiculous."