Stakes High for Colombia’s Presidential Novice

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos greets his successor, Iván Duque, in Bogotá, June 21
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos greets his successor, Iván Duque, in Bogotá, June 21 (Facebook)

Last month, 41-year old Iván Duque was elected as Colombia’s youngest president ever with the largest vote in the country’s history.

Turnout, at 53 percent, was the highest since 1998. The elections came on the heels of an historic peace deal with the far-left Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), ending half a century of conflict. Read more

Colombia’s Santos Seeks Revised Peace Deal with FARC

President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia observes a military exercise, November 12
President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia observes a military exercise, November 12 (Presidencia de la República de Colombia)

There was little hope left in October of bringing Colombia’s 52-year old conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to an end, when voters narrowly rejected a proposed peace plan in a referendum. Fears swelled that violence would break out again.

President Juan Manuel Santos, however, was undeterred and set about piecing together a revised peace deal.

Six weeks on, gloom and uncertainty have made way for cautious optimism. Read more

When People Don’t Give Peace a Chance: Colombia Rejects Peace with FARC

Two women demonstrate in favor of Colombia's peace agreement with the FARC in Bogotá, October 5
Two women demonstrate in favor of Colombia’s peace agreement with the FARC in Bogotá, October 5 (Galo Naranjo)

Who do you blame when bad things happen to good people? Who is your private scapegoat that helps you understand when barrel bombs kill children in Aleppo or when drones blow up weddings in Afghanistan? Who is to blame for war?

On many a Facebook comment, the answer is simplistic: “terrorists”, “the West”, “greedy corporations” — so rarely blamed are everyday people, who are, after all, war’s primary victims.

Such quick labels are good for our psychology: they make the problem seem surmountable, the worst parts of humanity something we can banish over the next hill.

That these scapegoats can also be accurate makes the situation all the more difficult; terrorists, the West, corporations and just about every other favorite boogeyman all have a hand in starting and sustaining wars. The Americans can surely blame the Russians for the Ukraine war; the Russians can surely blame the Americans for the Islamic State. Cherrypicked experience can justify anyone.

But no one geopolitical scapegoat can start and sustain a war. And Colombia’s voters just proved it. Read more

Colombia’s Referendum: Has the Best Chance for Peace Gone?

President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia gives a speech in Soacha, September 30
President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia gives a speech in Soacha, September 30 (SIG/Juan David Tena)

On Sunday, the people of Colombia unexpectedly rejected what had been dubbed an historic peace deal between their government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). 50.2 percent voted down the proposed accord in a referendum. The peace deal is off.

The 297-page agreement, signed last week after four years of negotiation, was meant to end a conflict that spans back to 1964 and has claimed an estimated 260,000 lives.

In speech after speech, President Juan Manuel Santos has extolled the peace accord’s historic nature. Confident of the referendum’s outcome, he staked his presidency on it. His future is now in doubt as well. Read more

Colombia’s Peace Talks with FARC Running Out of Time

Colombians march in protest to the FARC, July 20, 2008
Colombians march in protest to the FARC, July 20, 2008 (Alejandro Cortés)

A smattering of outbursts by the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Rodrigo Londoño, also known as “Timochenko,” have suddenly cast doubt on the peace talks between the Colombian government and the still 8,000-strong rebel group.

The current negotiations, initiated in Cuba three years ago, are the fourth such talks since the conflict began in 1964. An agreement reached in September, on the controversial issue of transitional justice, was seen as a significant breakthrough.

The conflict has, at different stages, been characterized as a war on communism, a war on drugs and a war on terror. It has claimed an estimated 220,000 lives; a further five million people have been displaced.

There is no manifest clarity to this struggle, with involved parties ranging from the smaller National Liberation Army — yet to enter any kind of peace negotiations — to the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), supposedly disbanded in 2003 and adjudged to be responsible for up to 80 percent of civilian casualties. The waters have been further muddied by a thriving drugs trade infiltrating all parties. Read more

Colombia’s Santos Urges American Engagement

Colombia’s president urged his American counterpart Barack Obama to focus more on maintaining relations across the Western Hemisphere.

“If the United States realizes its long-term strategic interests are not in Afghanistan or Pakistan but in Latin America, there will be great results,” Juan Manuel Santos Calderón said ahead of the Organization of American States’ sixth leadership summit in the Caribbean port of Cartagena this weekend.

Santos also urged his fellow South American leaders to bridge their ideological divides and cooperate wherever possible. “Let’s respect our differences, but stay together,” he said. “Who would have imagined Venezuela and Colombia working together?”

Although Santos is a conservative who, as defense minister, intensified the counterinsurgency effort against the FARC while Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez is a bombastic leftist who sympathizes with the rebel movement, there has been a rapprochement in the bilateral relationship since the former took office last year.

Chávez, who is undergoing cancer treatment in Cuba, did not attend the Summit of the Americas. After warmly greeting Obama at the same conference in 2009, the Venezuelan president accused the American of continuing the “fascist” policies of his predecessors

American-Colombian relations were frayed by President Obama’s two year delay of the implementation of a free-trade deal. Bogotá agreed in 2007 to reduce tariffs and trade barriers. America is its leading trading partners. Nearly 40 percent of Colombian exports are headed for the United States. By contrast, Colombia accounts for just 1 percent of America’s trade volume.

Santos’ attempted normalization of ties with his neighbor Chávez coincided with Obama giving his country the cold shoulder. Venezuela is Colombia’s second largest trading partner.

Opposition Republicans in the United States have chastised the president’s Latin American policy. One former presidential contender, Rick Santorum, said in January that Obama’s was “a consistent policy of siding with the leftists, siding with the Marxists.” He “held Colombia out to dry,” said Santorum, in not ratifying the free-trade agreement sooner which had been negotiated by the previous, Republican administration.

Republican Chastises Obama’s Latin America Policy

Rick Santorum, a Republican Party presidential contender, accused Barack Obama of pursuing “a consistent policy of siding with the leftists, siding with the Marxists” in Latin America.

The former Pennsylvania senator, who appears to have little chance of securing the Republican nomination to challenge the incumbent in November’s election, participated in a televised debate sponsored by CNN in Jacksonville, Florida on Thursday night. Conservatives in the southeastern state vote in a primary on Tuesday to elect a presidential candidate.

Santorum referenced Colombia in particular which “is out there on the frontlines working with us against the narco-terrorists, standing up to Chávez in South America and what did we do?” he asked.

For domestic political purposes, the president of the United States sided with organized labor and the environmental groups and held Colombia out to dry for three years.

Colombia successfully crushed the drug and FARC insurgency with military and financial support from the United States.

A free-trade agreement between the two countries, which the government in Bogotá ratified in 2007, was held up for nearly three years by the Obama Administration over union concerns about the safety of labor leaders in Latin America — even if the murder rate among union members has steeply declined in recent years. A unionized laborer in Colombia today is one sixth as likely to be a victim of homicide as a fellow citizen who does not belong to a trade union.

Colombia accounts for just 1 percent of America’s trade volume but 40 percent of Colombian exports are to the United States. A third of the products it imports are American.

The country sells mainly coal, coffee, cut flowers and petroleum. As the security situation has stabilized, the Colombian economy is performing strongly. 4.3 percent growth is expected this year.

Despite a longstanding economic and military relationship with the United States, Colombia’s second largest trading partner is neighboring Venezuela where the president, Hugo Chávez, works to build an anti-American league in the region.

Bogotá suspects Venezuela of supporting the left-wing revolutionaries of the FARC but seeks to normalize relations with the Chávez regime nonetheless. Conservatives in the United States blame President Obama’s three years of inaction on the Colombian free-trade agreement for this apparent alienation. “We cannot do that to our friends in South America,” was how Santorum put it Thursday night.

He also rejected calls to normalize relations with Cuba which he described as “the heart of the cancer that is in Central and South America.” He alleged that the president intended to reward a behavior of thuggery. “This is the exact wrong message at the exact wrong time.”

Texas congressman Ron Paul, who advocates a noninterventionist foreign policy, challenged Santorum’s call for a more activist American presence across the Western Hemisphere. “You’re talking about force,” he said. “The Cold War is over. They’re not going to invade us.”

I don’t think the nations in South America and Central America necessarily want us to come down there and dictate what government they should have.

Rather he championed freer trade before pointing out that economic sanctions, well intended as he said they may be, “almost inevitably backfire and help the dictators and hurt the people.”

During the Cold War, the United States regularly intervened in the political affairs of Latin American nations to prevent leftist regimes from coming to power there. Santorum said he didn’t necessarily favor military intervention but suggested that an economic union should be erected across the Americas.