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Profile : A Guerrilla in the Cabinet: The New Politics of Colombia : Antonio Navarro Wolff was once a hard-core revolutionary chieftain. Now he runs the ministry of health. His transformation says a lot about the overall change in the South American country.

August 21, 1990|WILLIAM R. LONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOGOTA, Colombia — Antonio Navarro Wolff has changed, it seems. Not long ago, he was known as a steel-eyed guerrilla chieftain, a hard-core revolutionary. Now he is a Cabinet minister, soft-spoken and conciliatory, in league with Colombia's political Establishment.

Or is it Colombia that has changed?

Whatever the interpretation, it is clear that this South American country's long history of volatile conflict between rebels and government is moving in peaceful new directions. And Navarro, 42, personifies the shift.

He belongs to the April 19 Movement.

Perhaps better known simply as M-19, this was the notorious guerrilla group that invaded an embassy party in 1980 and for two months held a houseful of foreign diplomats hostage, including the U.S. ambassador. It was also the group that seized the national Palace of Justice in 1985, resisting an army counterattack that left 100 people dead, including 11 members of the Supreme Court.

That same M-19 is now a legal political party and Navarro, its leading figure, is minister of health in the new administration of President Cesar Gaviria.

Suddenly, M-19 has penetrated the power monopoly always controlled by Gaviria's Liberal Party and the opposition Conservatives. On his first day in the spacious, carpeted offices he occupies in the Ministry of Health, Navarro noted with pride that he is "the first minister in Colombia who is not a Liberal or a Conservative."

He also emphasized the change to peaceful methods in his party's pursuit of power.

"Every hour has its pursuit, and the pursuit of this hour is peace," he told reporters. "I believe the M-19 hit the mark by knowing how to identify that moment, by acting in accord with that moment and by knowing that peace was not only necessary but also possible."

Navarro said he and his party will use their new relationship with government to help Gaviria's administration seek peace with the five other guerrilla organizations in Colombia.

"I believe that we are in a process of reconciliation that is going to be much broader than just reconciliation with the M-19, and we are going to make every effort to move ahead rapidly," he said. "We are going to help in every possible way."

This man of peace sounded like a radically modified version of the Navarro described by writer Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza in "Fire Zones," a book about guerrillas published just last November.

"He is an ambitious, calculating, intelligent, suffering man with an expression of metallic hardness on his face, the archetype of a revolutionary forged in his own hot-headed dreams," Mendoza wrote. He said Navarro had been a Maoist before joining the M-19 guerrillas, who included both Marxist and non-Marxist rebels.

Navarro, who is from a provincial, middle-class family, told The Times that he has never belonged to any party other than the M-19, and he avoided calling himself a leftist, much less a Maoist.

And while it championed such leftist causes as redistribution of wealth, the M-19, formally founded in 1974, has usually been seen as more reformist than doctrinaire Marxist, dedicated principally to breaking open Columbia's long-closed political system. The group was named after the date in 1970 when retired Gen. Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, a populist former dictator, lost elections that his supporters said were rigged against him.

Although the M-19 has had close connections with the Communist Party of President Fidel Castro in the past, Navarro portrayed the Cuban government currently as "very isolated and in a difficult situation for international relations"--in other words, not a very appealing role model.

Navarro became an M-19 commander in 1978 after six years as a professor of sanitary engineering at Valle University in the city of Cali. He had received his engineering degree from the same university and done postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics and Loughboro University in England.

After leaving Valle, he served as M-19 field commander for two rural fronts. He was elected as a member of the national command staff in 1985.

The M-19 first signed a peace agreement with the government in 1984. In May, 1985, during a period of truce, Navarro was having breakfast with friends in a Cali cafe when someone threw a grenade that nearly killed him.

"I had more than 100 shrapnel fragments in my arms, my neck, my legs," he recalled in an interview for a book on the M-19.

In the hospital, he feared another attempt on his life, so he left for Mexico. There, his left leg was amputated below the knee. He went to Cuba for further treatment.

While he was in Havana, on Nov. 6, 1985, a squad of M-19 guerrillas stormed the Palace of Justice, the Supreme Court headquarters in downtown Bogota. Responding to a question by The Times, Navarro said the takeover was a mistake, but he called the army's fiery counterattack a "brutal reaction."

He said he only learned of the takeover from the Cuban press, well after it began. "I had nothing to do with that decision," he said.

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