Colombia’s President Santos: Architect of Peace

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, buoyed by some advances in peace negotiations with the FARC guerrillas, launched his candidacy for reelection to a second four-year term as an opportunity for “peace and prosperity” in his war-torn country. If a pacification agreement is finalized in time, the presidential election in May will be accompanied by a referendum in which voters will accept or reject the terms of the settlement, a controversial political issue in Colombia.

Santos is deeply committed to a peace deal that would end five decades of conflict that has caused more than 200,000 deaths. His opponents, led by former President Álvaro Uribe, say Santos has been too lenient in offering the guerrilla leadership reduced prosecution for crimes. Patriotic Union, a left-wing party closely linked to the FARC, has been rehabilitated and the guerrillas hope to run candidates in “gerrymandered” districts designed to provide seats in Congress for the insurgents if they lay down their arms. This is still under discussion in negotiations on an overall six-point agenda that have been under way for a year, without a final result. This week an 18th round of negotiations begin, this time focusing on drug trafficking, a major source of funding for the guerrillas, who also kidnap wealthy people for ransom and extort “security” payments from ranchers, mining companies, transporters, and other business sectors in rural areas they control by force of arms. Although Colombia’s competent armed forces have thwarted the FARC ambition to control strategic sectors of the economy, the low-level insurgency continues to exact a heavy cost on an otherwise buoyant economy. This is why Santos has linked the chance of a peace settlement to greater prosperity for Colombia’s 40 million people.

Santos enjoys wide international support for his pacification efforts, from prominent leaders like UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Pope Francis as well as progressive political sectors in Europe and Latin America. For instance, Felipe González, former prime minister of Spain, visited Colombia last week, and gave his support to Santos, with the authority of a Socialist who contributed to restoring democracy in Spain after the end of the Franco dictatorship. “Colombia has the potential to grow seven or eight percent a year, but it needs peace to achieve that prosperity,” said González at an international conference on economic development. Colombia has the land and climate to be a major food exporter, like Brazil, and is becoming an energy power with world-class oil, gas, and coal deposits, as well as a strategic logistical corridor with ports on the Atlantic and Pacific. Colombia’s political influence as a democratic country in South America will grow if it manages to sustain economic development and growth, offsetting the influence of Venezuela’s radical, anti-American “21st-century socialism,” now undergoing a serious internal political and economic crisis.

The United States has been a key supporter of Colombia against the FARC guerrillas since the Clinton administration launched Plan Colombia in 2000, providing substantial military equipment, training, and financing for an ostensibly anti-narcotics program, but with a more basic goal of defeating the then dangerous guerrilla insurgency. The plan worked, the FARC and other guerrilla groups were rolled back, much of the FARC leadership was wiped out, and the Colombian people became more strongly opposed to guerrilla violence. This political-military success is what induced the weakened FARC to accept the peace negotiations, proposed by Norway, a proven mediator in peace talks between combatants. Cuba acquiesced in providing Havana as a neutral ground for the negotiations. Before the decline of the FARC, Cuba and Venezuela had long subversive associations with the Colombian guerrillas, including partnering in international drug trafficking. In his campaign for international support for peace, Santos is scheduled to visit Washington on December 3rd to talk with President Obama. They have met before, during Obama’s first term, when the US Senate was stalling on approval of a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia because of resistance by the AFL-CIO union lobby. With help from the White House, this resistance was overcome. But for the 62-year-old Santos, the issues now are more political, and the visit to Obama clearly will focus on what new bilateral relations can develop if Colombia is pacified. This calls for new ideas, and could be an opportunity for the Obama administration to be more creative in support of a key Latin American ally that is a defender of democracy and human rights in a continent where these values are under attack from authoritarian regimes.

Santos has established a pragmatic relationship between peace and economic prosperity. This requires greater economic inclusion for the poorest sectors in Colombia, 30 percent of the population, who are concentrated in the rural sectors where subsistence agriculture and inadequate social investments in education and health care perpetuate chronic poverty. This breeding ground for rural violence and political instability is what a new Plan Colombia should address through specific programs of social development if President Obama wants to keep the United States relevant for Colombia’s democracy. The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank are already working in this direction with Colombia, but this cooperation does not carry the political label of the United States to a commitment to genuine democracy and free institutions in Latin America. Just as it defeated the guerrilla insurgency, Colombia can become a model of how political freedom and compromise can enhance the prospects for inclusive economic development, without which no democratic regime can sustain itself in Latin America.

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