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 “Stakes High for Colombia’s Presidential Novice”

Colombia’s Santos Seeks Revised Peace Deal with FARC

Juan Manuel Santos
President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia signs a peace agreement with the FARC in the presence of other Latin American leaders, September 26 (Gobierno de Chile)

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 “Colombia’s Santos Seeks Revised Peace Deal with FARC”

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

President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia signs a peace agreement with the FARC in the presence of other Latin American leaders, September 26
President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia signs a peace agreement with the FARC in the presence of other Latin American leaders, September 26 (Gobierno de Chile)

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

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

Juan Manuel Santos
President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia signs a peace agreement with the FARC in the presence of other Latin American leaders, September 26 (Gobierno de Chile)

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 Referendum: Has the Best Chance for Peace Gone?”

Colombia’s Peace Talks with FARC Running Out of Time

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 Peace Talks with FARC Running Out of Time”

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.

Congress Ratifies Long Stalled Trade Accords

American lawmakers on Wednesday voted to ratify long stalled free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea in what is heralded as the most significant expansion of trade relations in nearly two decades.

Although the trade accords with Colombia and Panama, negotiated by the Bush Administration, are unlikely to have a significant economic impact, the agreement with the Republic of Korea could boost American exports by up to $12 billion per year and create as many as 280,000 jobs in the United States, according to an assessment by the International Trade Commission, an independent federal advisory body. Other studies have suggested a net job gain of 70,000.

President Barack Obama hailed the vote as a victory for the American economy. “Tonight’s vote, with bipartisan support, will significantly boost exports that bear the proud label ‘Made in America,’ support tens of thousands of good paying American jobs and protect labor rights, the environment and intellectual property,” he said.

The president’s own party, however, had stalled ratification of the trade agreements as labor unions claimed that they would incur major job losses in the United States. The administration renegotiated part of the deal with Seoul last year to protect American automakers against immediate Korean competition.

Opposition Republicans had urged ratification of the trade deals but were opposed to expansion of a compensation program that finances benefits and retraining to workers who lost their job as a result of free-trade pacts.

Many Republicans voted for expansion of trade adjustment on Wednesday nevertheless while a significant number of Democratic lawmakers voted against the trade deals altogether.

The vote came on the eve of a visit by President Lee Myung-bak of Korea who is expected to address a joint session of Congress on Thursday afternoon.

Republicans Vote Against Free Trade Pacts

Senate Republicans last week refused to consider enacting free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea despite their previous criticism of President Barack Obama who failed to advance these treaties during his past two years in office. The reason? Democrats coupled their support for the trade deals with the inclusion of funding for additional unemployment benefits for workers that might lose their jobs as a result of freer trade.

The trade agreement with Colombia was signed in 2006 while the South Korea and Panama accords were signed a year later. Both must pass Congress before they can take effect but Democrats have protracted ratification while the Obama Administration went back to the Koreans to negotiate a better deal for American automakers. Read more “Republicans Vote Against Free Trade Pacts”

Rift in American-Colombian Relations

Colombia is one of America’s staunchest allies in Latin America. Decades of joint counterterrorism operations in the name of the war on drugs have forged a strong relationship that made Colombia the stable and prosperous nation it is today. Yet José R. Cárdenas, a former Bush Administration official, believes that there is reason for concern. Writing for Foreign Policy, he notes that “the US-Colombia strategic partnership is fraying under the Obama Administration.”

Colombia successfully crushed a narco-terrorist insurgency in recent years with military and financial support from the United States. The FARC still exists but its leadership and territorial control have been diminished. Colombian cities are now safe,” according to Cárdenas, “and stability has been restored in a strategically located South American country.”

The Obama Administration is damaging the relationship however by failing to move forward on a free-trade agreement that was negotiated by the previous, Republican government.

Colombia ratified the treaty in 2007 to eliminate tariffs and other trade barriers. President Obama is holding up congressional approval, supposedly over concerns about the safety of labor leaders in Colombia. Yet the overall murder rate in the country has declined dramatically in the past decade while the murder rate among union members has declined even more rapidly. A union member in Colombia today is one sixth as likely to be a victim of homicide as a fellow citizen who does not belong to a union. The Colombian government has increased convictions for homicides against union members by eight fold in the past three years.

Ratification of the agreement is certainly far more in Colombia’s interest than it is in the United States’. America is the country’s leading trading partner. Nearly 40 percent of its exports head for the United States while almost a third of its imports come from it. By contrast, Colombia accounts for just 1 percent of America’s trade volume.

Colombia’s second largest trading partner is neighboring Venezuela and its leader, Hugo Chávez, is having “a field day,” according to Cárdenas, “telling anyone who will listen that this is where you will wind up when you put your trust in the yanquis: alone at the altar.”

Since the Obama Administration won’t move on trade, Colombia is turning elsewhere. President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón seems willing to normalize relations with his eastern neighbor despite its suspected support for the FARC. “That Santos is willing to take the chance on seeking an accommodation with Chávez speaks volumes about his lack of faith in the current American administration to stand behind him.”

With all that’s been accomplished in defeating in the FARC and reining in the drug trade, “watching the current drift in bilateral relations is painful,” writes Cárdenas.

Santos’ political centrism compared to his predecessor may be less detrimental than Cárdenas fears. If the FARC is to removed as a credible actor from Colombian politics, its sympathizers on the left have to be made part of the consensus. The president’s appeals to “national unity” aren’t necessarily worrisome nor is his willingness to boost regional cooperation. There is no reason for this to coincide with a further erosion in American-Colombian relations however.

The End of Ideology in South America

A new generation of conservative leaders appears to be stepping up in Latin America. In Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos just took over as president from Álvaro Uribe who had been the continent’s most right-wing leader in a decade. Chile recently elected billionaire Sebastián Piñera president while in Brazil, the opposition’s candidate, José Serra, stands a good chance of claiming victory this fall. It may be tempting to believe that South America is turning conservative. Not so, says Michael Shifter.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Shifter, who is the president of the Inter American Dialogue think tank, argues that South America isn’t making a turn for the right. Rather, he believes, it has shifted to the center. Read more “The End of Ideology in South America”