U.S.-Colombia: Launching “Peace Colombia”

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Kerry Santos

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State / Flickr / Public Domain

The United States, buoyed by good feelings about what President Obama called Colombia’s “remarkable transformation,” last week pledged $450 million a year in continued aid for the next five years, but it’s not clear yet whether “Peace Colombia” will be very different from Plan Colombia, to which the United States contributed some $10 billion.  The new spending includes unspecified amounts to support the reintegration of FARC combatants who lay down their arms as part of a peace accord expected next month, but much of the emphasis appears to be on old priorities, such as “consolidating and expanding progress in security and counternarcotics.”

  • Obama and Colombian President Santos announced the new program in Washington events marking the 15th anniversary of the launch of Plan Colombia. Amid the many remarks about Colombia’s progress, indicators such as homicide rates (down 50 percent since 2002), kidnapping rates (down 90 percent), economic growth (averaging 4.3 percent), and poverty and unemployment (down slightly) stand out.  By most accounts, moving around core regions of Colombia is easier and safer than it’s been in decades.

Some of these gains of the past 15 years remain tenuous, and “Peace Colombia” will face new challenges as well.  In speeches and backgrounders, government officials have acknowledged that coca eradication and crop substitution programs have failed to reverse Colombia’s role as the world’s biggest producer of coca.  Moreover, programs supporting the demobilization of the FARC will be more difficult to implement than those given to the rightwing paramilitaries in 2002-2006.  Tens of thousands of former paramilitaries are now active in bandas criminales (BACRIMs), which President Santos recently referred to as “2,500 miniscule criminal organizations scattered throughout the country.”  Changing economic circumstances could also complicate efforts to advance peace.  During the years of Plan Colombia, the country got a healthy bump from both domestic and foreign investment – because of the improved security environment as well as the external economic environment, including the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement and Chinese demand for commodities.  Investment remains strong, but the export boom is over, which is lowering growth and squeezing government budgets.

The creation of economic opportunity is at least as important to the success of Peace Colombia as continued support for the Colombian military and security system, although last week’s speeches and press releases did not shed much light on that.  Achieving peace and building democracy will also require addressing infrastructure deficits, educational inequality, inadequate job training, and poverty.  Several Florida congressmen, arguing that “Peace Colombia” supports an accord that’s overly generous to the FARC, say they’ll oppose Obama’s pledged aid.  The assistance will almost certainly advance, however, because of the strong Washington consensus that Colombia is its biggest (if not only) success worldwide in beating back irregular armed groups.  Moreover, as President Santos and U.S. Secretary of State Kerry emphasized in a press conference, there are no conditions on the new assistance – which should assuage Congressional opponents’ concerns that the relationship will get held up by investigations into alleged human rights violations in the past.  The Presidents spoke of pulling Colombia back from the “verge of collapse” in the 2000s to the “verge of peace” now.  A broadening of strategies in both capitals, including a reassessment of the emphasis on military options, could push the country toward becoming a more inclusive democracy, which ultimately may be what is required in order to achieve lasting peace.

February 8, 2016

Colombian President Santos’s Challenges Now … and Later

By Fulton Armstrong
Embed from Getty Images
Colombian polls continue to give President Santos a comfortable margin in a second-round re-election victory, but the gap is closing – and an array of issues plaguing his campaign suggest serious challenges ahead for a second term.  The economy grew 4.3 percent last year, and optimism about future growth is so strong that the central bank is implementing measures to keep inflation under control.  The peace process with the FARC has been tedious – yielding agreements on only two of five main agenda items over 17 months of talks – but the fundamental drivers of the talks, including fatigue on both sides, remain strong.  But a number of political messes are swirling around the President:

  • The Army was caught red-handed spying on Santos’s top advisors in the FARC negotiations, suggesting disloyalty to him as Commander in Chief.  (The intercept center that police last week [6 May] raided was not the Army’s.  It was staffed by contractors reporting to the Centro Democrático, the party of former President Uribe and Santo’s leading rival in the election, Óscar Iván Zuluaga.)
  • Uribe, who in March won a seat in the Colombian Senate, has been a relentless critic and drawn Santos into public spats.  Santos recently called on the former President to “stop causing the country harm” and to stop politicizing the Armed Forces.
  • An agricultural strike launched in late April has revived memories of a nasty confrontation last year and threatens food supplies in the run-up to the election.  Santos has mobilized police and military assets to keep highways open, but a political solution has eluded him.
  • In late April, the courts forced Santos to reinstate Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, whom he had removed a month earlier because the nation’s inspector general, an Uribe partisan, found that the mayor’s decision to cancel private garbage-collection contracts did not follow proper procedure.  Santos had gone ahead with the firing over the objections of a unanimous Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
  • Santos’s political message has been off target.  He has made the peace talks his top priority and proclaimed that “the second term will be about peace,” but polls indicate that only 5 percent of voters say the peace process is their top concern.

If the polls are correct, Colombians voting in the first round on May 25 and second round on June 15 feel little enthusiasm for Santos, but even less for Zuluaga and Uribe’s party.  A recent surge in support for former Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa suggests, on the other hand, that voters could turn on both candidates.  Behind the numbers is a country eager to consolidate its democracy, maintain stability and – probably – end the 50-year insurgency.  But the red flags – such as the security service’s continued penchant for spying on government officials – are not inconsequential.  Santos, who was Defense Minister during Uribe’s presidency, should have earned the military’s confidence, will have to decide how far to push the military to respect democratically elected civilian leadership.  The farmers’ demands, including relief from low-priced, low-quality imports facilitated by Colombia’s free trade agreements, will also be difficult to satisfy.  A peace deal with the FARC will be an historic achievement, but the political reality is probably that any assistance to demobilized combatants will be minuscule compared to that given to the former paramilitaries – increasing the likelihood that ex-insurgents, like the paramilitaries, will join the bandas criminales (BACRIM) who continue to maraud throughout large swaths of the country.  Santos’s second term, should he win one, will not be easy.

Colombia: Giving Peace Talks Another Try

Photo by: ideas4solutions | Flickr | Creative Commons

President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC Commander “Timochenko” announced this week that they have agreed to hold “direct and uninterrupted” negotiations beginning in Oslo as early as next month to “put an end to the conflict as an essential condition for the building of a stable and durable peace.”  Press reports suggest popular support for the talks, despite criticism from former President Álvaro Uribe and his allies in Bogotá and Washington.  U.S. Representative Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the news “gravely disappointing.”  The role of Cuba and Venezuela in the preliminary talks and Havana’s future hosting of the post-Oslo phase of negotiations have particularly rankled Cuban-American legislators.  State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States “would, of course, welcome any efforts to end the hemisphere’s longest-running conflict and to bring about lasting peace in Colombia.”

Santos has stated that the time is right to start talks, although he has emphasized that the government “will not make any concessions on the military side” and that military operations “will continue with the same intensity.”  Observers note the conditions are indeed different from when previous efforts foundered.  The FARC leadership has been weakened considerably, and the group’s ideological grounding and foreign support have evaporated.  The FARC apparently feels that the security of demobilized combatants – a longtime concern – will not be compromised even though demobilized paramilitaries could very well try to hunt them down.  Timochenko said the FARC “come[s] to the table without grudges or arrogance,” and the group issued a “Video for Peace” with a rap song urging support for talks – signs of confidence in the process not seen previously.

The State Department’s statement welcoming the talks was positive but general.  Santos’s decision puts Washington on the spot – of which the sniping reflected in Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen’s remarks is just one part.  Sitting on a massive U.S. investment in the military option and espousing similar programs against narcotics traffickers in Central America, the Obama Administration may be reluctant to go significantly beyond rhetorical support for the talks.  Cuba and Venezuela, whose influence over the independent-minded FARC has often been tenuous, are a moderating force, but Washington may be loath to acknowledge their value in a peace process.  Santos has little choice but to take the FARC’s sincerity at face value for now, but he surrenders little leverage in the current configuration.  The FARC may be cynically calculating that it can benefit from the sort of demobilization that the rightwing paramilitaries had – reaping benefits for commanders and troops, and then re-mobilizing as a newly configured force.  After all, the bandas criminales – BACRIMs – marauding through parts of rural Colombia today are essentially paramilitaries without the ideological and political overlay of the past.  Whereas the truce between former President Uribe and the paramilitaries had support from the Bush administration, it will be telling to see whether the Obama administration accepts what’s needed for a serious peace effort with the FARC, such as an expensive demobilization plan, launched by a Colombian president with stronger democratic credentials.

NOTE:  This is a corrected version of an article originally posted on September 7, which incorrectly characterized the State Department’s position on the talks.  We regret any confusion the inaccuracy may have caused.