In the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was a global murder capital held hostage by warring drug cartels. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it looked like a potential failed state. These days, it is described as “Latin America’s rising star,” “Latin America’s rising oil star,” “Latin America’s latest economic miracle,” “an economic powerhouse,” and “a magnet for foreign investment.”
While the story of Colombia’s resurgence has become old news, it has not become any less remarkable. A country where violence once seemed uncontrollable is now a darling of global investors and one of the most promising emerging-market economies in the world.
About a week before George W. Bush took office in January 2001, a San Antonio Express-News dispatch from Bogotá described Colombia as a nation “engulfed on all sides by violence and war.” Eight years later, when Bush was about to leave the White House, things in Colombia had improved so dramatically that he awarded then-President Álvaro Uribe with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, praising him as someone who had “reawakened the hopes of his countrymen and shown a model of leadership to a watching world.”
Uribe’s successor in the Casa de Nariño, Juan Manuel Santos, served as defense minister from 2006 to 2009, during which time Colombia scored a number of major victories in its battle against leftist narco-guerrillas, including the dramatic rescue of French-Colombian politician Íngrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages (three of them Americans) as part of Operation Checkmate in July 2008. The following December, Colombia’s most influential magazine (Semana) named Santos person of the year, declaring that he “may be remembered as the best minister of defense the country has had.”
After Santos became president in 2010, he surprised many Colombians by seeking to improve relations with the late Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chávez, who had previously denounced Santos as a dangerous warmonger. (During the 2010 Colombian presidential campaign, Chávez had warned that Santos “could cause a war in this part of the world, upon instructions from the Yankees.”) Santos also sought a rapprochement with Ecuador, whose president, Rafael Correa, a quasi-authoritarian Chávez disciple, had clashed with Uribe.
Meanwhile, he launched a new military offensive against his country’s oldest and largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which has been waging a campaign of terror against the Colombian state since the mid-1960s. The offensive was a huge success, as government forces killed some of most legendary and powerful FARC commanders, including Mono Jojoy and Alfonso Cano. (Santos called the death of Cano “the most devastating blow that [the FARC] has suffered in its history.”) By mid-2012, government forces had weakened the FARC so much that Santos formally announced a new round of peace talks, in hopes of finally ending a conflict that has claimed an estimated 220,000 lives.
Bogotá’s peace initiative was connected to the restoration of diplomatic ties with Venezuela and Ecuador. Chávez had provided the FARC with material aid and safe haven for many years, and Correa had allegedly received up to $400,000 from the Colombian guerrillas during his 2006 presidential campaign (according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies). For that matter, relations between Colombia and Ecuador had collapsed in March 2008 after Colombian military forces raided a FARC camp just across the border on Ecuadorean soil. (The 2008 raid killed FARC leader Raúl Reyes and yielded a wealth of computer files linking the organization with both Chávez and Correa.) By achieving détente with Caracas and Quito, Santos was creating the conditions that would allow for serious peace talks with the rebels. Just last week, he praised the Venezuelan government for its role in promoting the talks.
A year after they first began, the negotiations have made substantial progress on land reform, but not on anything else. The government and the FARC are still very far apart on issues such as political participation, drug trafficking, criminal justice, and victims’ compensation. For example, FARC leaders have called for Colombia to draft a new constitution and delay its 2014 elections. Both proposals are nonstarters with the government. Bogotá enacted a “Legal Framework for Peace” (LFP) to facilitate the negotiations, and the LFP (which has survived a constitutional challenge) lays out broad parameters for ending the FARC war, achieving reconciliation, and delivering reparations to victims. But the details remain highly controversial, with critics on both the left and the right warning that the LFP could lead to “amnesty” for war criminals.
“We are currently in a critical moment,” government negotiator Sergio Jaramillo said on September 3. “I think that in the next months we will know if this is going to work or not because we are beginning on essential issues.” When he first announced the talks more than a year ago, Santos promised that they would “be measured in months, not years.” Yet the Colombian president has acknowledged that the implementation of any peace accord would be a long-term proposition. “If we eventually reach an agreement, the real peace will have to be built over many years,” he wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal. “A genuine peace—a peace that guarantees non-repetition of conflict, a peace that builds a new country around reconciliation and that heals the wounds of confrontation—will be a collective effort.”
The Santos strategy is high risk, high reward. It could deliver historic results, but it could also prove disastrous. The last time Colombia pursued lengthy peace negotiations with the FARC, between 1999 and 2002, it allowed the terror group to control a Switzerland-sized “demilitarized zone.” FARC commanders used the safe haven as a launching pad for violent attacks. They also replenished their military strength and expanded their lucrative drug activities. When the talks finally collapsed, the guerrillas were stronger than ever. It was only after Uribe and Santos inflicted devastating blows on the FARC (and a smaller leftist rebel group known as the ELN) that Colombians were willing to consider a new peace process.
Speaking of Uribe, he has become a vocal critic of Santos, as have many other Colombians. Uribe—who last month announced that he would be running for the Colombian senate in 2014—fears that Santos has abandoned the successful policies he inherited and is now offering the FARC “impunity” for decades of terrible crimes. The former president is still hugely popular in Colombia, and his frequent denunciations of Santos—which started well before the peace talks—have been a major news story.
Given their history, many ordinary Colombians are uneasy about the FARC negotiations. They’re also uneasy about the violent protests that rattled their country in late August and early September. While the protests began as a farmers’ strike over issues such as free trade and fertilizer costs, they quickly grew to include students and trade unionists. The farmers eventually agreed to end their demonstrations, but not before the government deployed troops in the streets of Bogotá. A Gallup poll released in early September showed that Santos’s approval rating had declined to 21 percent.
The good news for Colombia is that its economy grew by an impressive 4.2 percent (year on year) in the second quarter, and it ranks ahead of all but two Latin American economies (Chile and Peru) in the World Bank’s 2013 Ease of Doing Business Index. The Andean nation has become a true global leader on free trade, signing accords with the United States, Canada, Chile, the European Union, and others. It has also established a new regional trade bloc (the Pacific Alliance) with Chile, Mexico, and Peru. Meanwhile, Colombia has been experiencing a massive oil boom. In August, it produced an average of 1.03 million barrels of crude oil per day, an increase of 13.7 percent from its average daily crude production in August 2012. For that matter, Colombia’s daily crude production has roughly doubled since 2005, when it was only 525,000 barrels.
Indeed, Colombia’s energy sector has been rapidly expanding. So has its banking sector. As equity analyst Alejandro Pieschacón has noted, “Colombian subsidiaries currently represent 23 percent of Panama’s banking sector, 15 percent of Costa Rica’s, and 52 percent of El Salvador’s, while also managing, on average, 20 percent of the pension fund business in Chile, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and El Salvador.”
In a September 2012 Bloomberg News interview, Finance Minister Mauricio Cárdenas projected that a sustainable peace agreement with the FARC would boost Colombia’s long-term economic growth rate to 6 or 7 percent. Such a peace deal truly would be a game changer. But nobody should have any illusions about the FARC. It is Latin America’s oldest terrorist organization, with a five-decade history of kidnapping, extorting, and murdering innocent civilians. The guerrillas are much weaker today than they were in 2002, yet they continue to launch deadly attacks against Colombian soldiers; they continue to sabotage Colombian infrastructure; they continue to profit from drug trafficking; and they continue to hold hostages.
Colombia’s future looks bright, and a lasting peace accord would make it that much brighter. But negotiating with terrorists is always a risky gambit, and Santos will be navigating a minefield of potential dangers in the months ahead.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.