With drug-tainted president Ernesto Samper's term up in August, TIME Latin America bureau chief Tim Padgett says the U.S. "saw an opportunity to give the next president a carrot and a stick to ponder." The carrot is large: a return of the estimated $900 million in foreign aid that the sanctions have cost Colombia since 1996, plus the possibility in the future of full certification as a U.S. drug-war ally. Unfortunately, the leading candidate to succeed Samper is Horacio Serpa, a Samper lieutenant whom the U.S. believes to be just as beholden to drug money as his boss was. Even $900 million may not buy his honesty.
"The U.S. would prefer someone else," says Padgett. "Part of this is of course designed to encourage anti-Serpa candidates -- send a signal to Colombians that their best interests lie with the opposition." But after Samper, the U.S. sees any change as an opportunity. It has opted to try engagement.