A Victory for the Generation of Peace

Global Centre Stage

In his inaugural address, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos spoke about the triumphs of the on-going peace talks that have been taking place in Havana since October 2012. He went on to discuss pressing issues in Colombia such as the high rate of unemployment, education, corruption, poverty and the need for continual economic growth. William Rurode analyses the opportunities and challenges for the country’s president in his second innings

President Santos, who was first elected in 2010 on the premise of ending the 50-year-old civil war between the Government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, has since pushed for an open dialogue aimed to end an internal conflict that has cost the lives of over 200,000 people in addition to displacing almost five million civilians within Colombia1.

The Elections

In a highly contested electoral season, President Santos won the second round of voting with 51 percent of the votes, while his opponent Conservative Oscar Ivan Zuluaga received 45 percent of the vote2. In the first round, only 39 percent of Colombia’s 33 million registered voters went out to the voting booths; these numbers were lower than the average turnout rate of 44 percent. In order to win an election, a candidate must receive more than 50 percent of the vote. Zuluaga ‘won’ the first round with 29 percent of the vote to President Santos’ 25 percent3. With these results, no candidate obtained the necessary majority, thus a second round was set for June 15. In the runoff, more than 15 million voters returned to the polls to cast one of the most important votes in Colombia’s recent elections. With more than 7.5 million votes cast in his favour, President Santos was able to declare a victory for ‘the generation of peace’4 However, the peace talks with the FARC were not the only issue that voters had to take into account.

While the Santos campaign tried to make the election a matter of war and peace, there were various other social issues on the table, such as land reform, agricultural expansions and improvements, and general economic issues. The 2014 presidential elections were characterised by widespread corruption and a number of top campaign staffers were forced to resign due to extenuating circumstances. In one of the most highly publicised fiascos from the election cycle, Andres Sepulveda, a social media expert in the Zuluaga campaign admitted to illegally hacking into the Colombian peace talks. Not only was Sepulveda accused of wiretapping, but also of hacking into phones and computers of both the Colombian government and FARC delegations in Havana.

After initial denials of meeting the hacker, Zuluaga admitted to meeting Sepulveda when he visited an office, but continued to deny claims that he himself had authorised the hacking. Senators and other public officials loyal to President Santos used this as punishing propaganda. Using the information to state that former President Alvaro Uribe, a relentless supporter of Zuluaga and a hardliner against the FARC peace talks, was attempting to sabotage the peace process by undermining the integrity, power and authority of the Colombian government’s negotiators.

The Peace Talks

Santos is not the first president to attempt to put an end to the violence. A Marxist-Leninist revolutionary guerrilla organisation founded in 1964 after a period of bloodshed known as La Violencia, FARC launches attacks mostly against Colombia’s energy infrastructure, and also against its civilians, armed forces and politicians.

As an army of mostly peasants, FARC claims to represent the poor rural population and strongly opposes the strong presence the United States has in Colombia, mostly because of the heavily militarised Plan Colombia, which is the centrepiece of Washington’s anti-drug strategy in Colombia. Signed by President Bill Clinton, but drastically escalating under the Bush Presidency, Plan Colombia is a US military and counter-narcotic operation aimed at combatting Colombian drug cartels and Left-wing insurgency groups, such as FARC. President Belisario Betancur was the first to consider the idea of peace talks in the early 1980s. Colombia’s first success in dealing with rebel groups came in the late 1980s when the Movimiento 19 de Abril (M-19) group laid down their arms and demobilised. This was an extremely important step in dealing with paramilitary and rebel groups in Colombia, as it proved that striking peace deals with these rebel groups theoretically was possible.

In October 2012, President Santos launched a new round of peace talks, this time to be meditated by the Cuban government. President Santos and FARC, under the leadership of Luciano Marín Arango (Ivan Márquez), opened the newest round of talks with a six-point peace plan. Those six points are; land reform, political participation, disarmament, illicit drugs, rights of the victims, and peace deal implementation. FARC and the Colombian government have agreed on four out of six of these issues. The delegations are currently in talks over victim rights and reparations. In recent weeks, a group of victims joined the FARC rebels and Colombian government in Havana. Before the arrival of the victim’s delegation, FARC acknowledged that there were civilian victims in the conflict. This announcement, which came as a shock but also as a welcome admission not only to the civilians of Colombia but also the government, was seen as a significant leap in the prospect of the peace talks, as FARC had previously rejected the idea of victim inclusion in the talks.

The creation of a truth committee to address thousands of deaths and the allegation of human rights violations is all but unprecedented, and is being hailed around the world by various non-governmental agencies and supranational bodies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The head of OHCRH, Navi Pillay, praised the move as ‘a potential model for other countries dealing with issues of justice, peace and reconciliation5’. The leading government negotiator and former Vice-President Humberto de la Calle said: “What we are announcing today is a historic step forward on the effort to put victims at the centre of the peace process…These principles are unprecedented, never heard of before in Colombia, or in any other peace process.”6

While incredible strides have been made in the newest round of talks, FARC and the government acknowledge that there is still a lot to be done. Both sides must agree on how to pay reparations to the victims as well as how to implement the complete peace plan, being prepared to end the five decade long conflict. President Santos would like to declare the FARC insurgency over in addition to the need to combat the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN), another Leftist group that has been fighting the government since the early 1960s. Success within the Colombian government has been seen, proven by a 50 percent membership decline in the past decade alone7. Days before the presidential runoff election, President Santos made an announcement that the government and the ELN have been conducting informal peace talks for several months and the process of the talks would have the same structure as the FARC talks. As these talks enter their last stage, it is important to also address the smaller ELN, as it may become a prime refuge for former FARC fighters unhappy with the decision towards peace. If unsatisfied guerrillas simply move from FARC to the ELN, Colombian citizens will not see the peace they have desired for the past half-century.

Economic Growth

Colombia has enjoyed a period of continued economic growth over the last several years. Vast natural resources in addition to substantial amounts of gas and oil reserves have boosted the Colombian economy to become the third strongest in Latin America, behind Mexico and Brazil. According to a study done by the World Bank, Colombia’s economic growth was estimated at 4.3 percent, well above Latin America’s collective increase of 2.9 percent8. This was, in large, part due to construction additions in the country’s infrastructure.

The sudden move to a construction-driven economy could have possibly resulted from the oil slowdown in late 2012, when average output slowed from 1,000,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 2013, to just over 950,000 bpd earlier this year. This decline is attributed mostly to FARC and ELN attacks on the country’s energy sector. Rebel bombings of gas pipelines would force shutdowns for several days at a time as construction crews raced to repair the broken pipes. In 2013, Colombia’s Petroleum Association said that FARC and the ELN guerrillas launched 259 attacks on pipelines, the highest in a decade.

With such frequent attacks on the infrastructure, Colombian investors were forced to turn elsewhere to engage in further, substantial economic growth. The construction industry saw an incredible 21 percent jump in the last quarter of 2013, despite an 11 percent drop in the stock market and a wave of protests by those who claim the wealth wasn’t reaching the poorest parts of the population. Investing more money in public transportation and infrastructure, Colombia will not only see its middle class grow, but also prosper. By having more readily accessible access to goods and services, Colombia’s economy will continue to grow and further become one of the more stable economies in Latin America.

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William Rurode

William Rurode is currently a junior at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, DC.

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    1 http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e492ad6.html

    2 http://www.electionguide.org/elections/id/2321/

    3 ibid

    4 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-27862555

    5 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-28822683

    6 http://www.aljazeera.com/news/americas/2014/06/colombia-set-up-truth-commission-20146812462981529.html

    7 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-27788288

    8 http://www.investincolombia.com.co/news/682-the-fourth-nation-with-the-highest-economic-growth-in-2014.html

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