Obituary: Misael Pastrana

Misael Pastrana Borrero was president of Columbia in the early 1970s, a time of great hope that the divisive violence which had beset Colombia for many years could be overcome. But Pastrana lived to see these hopes cruelly dashed, as political sectarianism, and the corrupting power of huge drugs interests, left Colombia more explosively violent and divided than ever before.

He was born in the southern city of Neiva in 1923. As with many politicians, he studied law and then worked as a magistrate in his native city, where he also ran a magazine that proposed radical change to solve the country's problems. It was not long however before he became involved in mainstream politics, and by 1947 was working in the Colombian embassy at the Vatican.

His national political career began at the end of the 1940s when he worked as private secretary for the Conservative president Ospina Perez. In the 1950s, Colombia was torn apart by the struggle between supporters of the two traditional parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals. More than 300,000 people died in what is simply known as "la violoncia".

In 1953, the leaders of the two parties worked out a "National Front" pact in which they agreed to alternate in power and share ministerial responsibilites, in order to bring an end to the violence and also to keep out the military strongman Gustavo Rojas Pinilla.

Misael Pastrana served as a minister under several of these National Front administrations. Although the two main parties were successful in this power-sharing, Rojas Pinilla could command a large following, and it is still a matter of great debate in Colombia as to whether Pastrana or the former dictator won the 19 April 1970 elections. Counting was suspended after several hours, and it was not until the next day that Pastrana was declared the winner by the tiny margin of 63,000 votes.

Rojas Pinilla's supporters considered they had been robbed of victory, and subsequently formed the "April 19 Movement", better-known as the M- 19 guerrilla group, which sought to take power by violent means. Critics of the Conservative-Liberal pact have argued that it was their sharing of power that excluded not only the M-19, but many other groups from political life in Colombia, with disastrous results in terms of the violence, distrust and alienation from political life that can be seen today.

During his four years in office, Pastrana was cautiously progressive. He sought to increase employment opportunities with a famous four-point strategy. He attempted to boost national savings as a way of moving away from dependency on foreign investment and credit, and he extended pensions rights for many people.

At the same time, he was a champion of "a car for every Colombian family", and was instrumental in bringing the French car-makers Renault to Colombia. He also promoted the first national environmental legislation in Latin America.

The end of his four year-term in office came in 1974, which also saw the end of the National Front governments. Pastrana then took on the mantle of the "natural leader" of the Conservative party. He proved unable to hold the different factions of the party together, however, and in consequence there has only been one Conservative president since his own term in office.

As an elder statesman, Pastrana was appointed a member of the Constituent Assembly in 1991 which tried once again to resolve Colombia's political turmoil by reforming the Constitution in a way that would allow more sectors of society to play a role in national politics. Pastrana soon resigned out of disgust at the manuvres going on to make it constitutionally impossible to extradite suspected drugs traffickers to the United States.

By this time, leadership of the Conservative party had passed to Pastrana's son, Andres, who stood as candidate in the 1994 elections and seemed an almost sure winner. In the second round however, he was beaten by the revitalised campaign of the liberal candidate, Funesto Samper - a campaign which Misael Pastrana and many other Colombians were convinced had been largely financed by the drugs cartels. This led him to increasingly bitter attacks on the new president, until ill-health forced his retirement. At his death, though, both political friends and opponents praised his honesty and his complete devotion to his political cause.

Misael Pastrana Borrero, politician: born Neiva, Colombia 14 November 1923; Minister of the Interior, Columbia 1966-68; Ambassador to the United States 1968-69; President of Columbia 1970-74; married Maria Cristina Arango (three sons, one daughter); died Santa Fe de Bogot, Columbia 21 August 1997.