The world’s eyes may have been trained on the World Cup this weekend, but a different heated contest also took place in South America on Sunday night. In Colombia, incumbent president Juan Manuel Santos, who has made “peace” talks with leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas the center of his campaign, was reelected in a runoff. He defeated his assertive challenger, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, a staunch opponent of the negotiations, by a margin of 51 to 45 percent.
On paper, there were striking similarities between the two candidates. Both represent center-right parties, and both are economists by trade. They also served for a time in the same presidential administration, that of Alvaro Uribe, who was president from 2002 to 2010. From 2006 to 2009, Santos was defense minister; from 2007 to 2010, Zuluaga was the minister for finance and public credit. Generally speaking, the two candidates were in broad agreement over how to manage Colombia’s economy. The race, instead, was essentially a referendum on Santos’s conciliatory policies towards the FARC guerillas, or, in unfortunate popular parlance, the FARC “rebels.” (To call them mere “rebels” romanticizes them and obscures what they really are: terrorists, who have kidnapped and killed civilians by the thousands.)
Strangely, Santos had long been tough on FARC; when he was defense minister, the Colombian government initiated a number of aggressive moves against the terrorists, including the famous campaign that liberated the kidnapped French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and some 14 additional hostages. When he was elected president in 2010, Santos continued to take the fight to the guerillas, and under his leadership, the Colombian military succeeded in killing some of the group’s most notorious terrorist leaders. But in 2012, Santos reversed course and initiated unconditional talks, which have been taking place in fits and starts over the past two years in Havana. Santos also pursued a rapprochement with the leftist government of Venezuela, which had long backed the guerillas.
There are six primary matters that Santos hopes to hash out in his final settlement with the guerillas. So far, they’ve agreed to deals on three: land and rural development, drug trafficking (which FARC says it will end), and the future political participation of the guerillas. Remaining to be hammered out are agreements on the rights of the victims of FARC terrorism, disarmament, and the implementation of the agreement itself. Achieving a settlement won’t be easy. Nonetheless, Santos is bullish on the talks. FARC “has agreed to follow the rules of democracy,” he said last fall.
It is the future of these peace talks on which the election hinged. Santos vowed to continue his overtures, and made “peace” – or his version of it - the slogan of his campaign. Zuluaga, by contrast, ran as a staunch opponent of Santos’s gentle approach to FARC. While not against the possibility of talks per se, Zuluaga advocated much more stringent conditions on the terrorists – in particular, that they renounce violence and dispose of their large cache of weaponry before talks could proceed. (There are still nearly 10,000 FARC fighters, and they continue to control a vast arsenal.)
Zuluaga’s tough position on the “peace” talks gained him an interesting backer: former President Uribe, Santos and Zuluaga’s old boss, who is now a senator and still a wildly popular political figure in Colombia. Uribe loudly endorsed Zuluaga, arguing that “future generations will be pained by the current weakness of negotiations with terrorists.” But apparently Uribe’s endorsement wasn’t enough to overcome Santos’s strong support from the organized Left, particularly trade unions. These organized supporters numbered about a million – enough to provide Santos with his margin of victory. (The candidates were separated by about 900,000 votes.) But Santos knew that it was the peace talks that really mattered when it came to voting time. “This is the end of more than 50 years of violence in our county,” Santos boasted at his victory rally Sunday night.
If you want to see both the potential and the peril in Latin America, you could not do better than to visit Honduras and Colombia, as I did in mid-May: The former is Exhibit A for all that is wrong with the region, from drug trafficking and violence to governmental corruption; the latter a showcase of what can be done to bring even the most embattled country back from the brink.
Vice President Joe Biden is in Latin America meeting with foreign leaders. His first stop was in Colombia, where he landed yesterday and met with Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos.
The vice president was diplomatic. "We understand that some real progress appears to have been made yesterday on the agrarian front. We applaud every advance -- every advance -- that gets Colombians closer to the peace they so richly deserve. And we look forward to the day when Colombia can fully enjoy a genuine peace dividend."
On October 21, President Obama signed into law the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement (FTA), thereby giving American exporters greater access to one of South America’s fastest growing markets. The long, tiring debate over the FTA—which began five years ago, when the agreement was first completed—showed that popular perceptions of Colombia are stuck in a time warp. Not only has the country become a much safer and less violent place than it was in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, it has also become one of the most promising economies in the Western Hemisphere.
The Obama administration finally announced earlier this week an agreement on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, paving the way for its ratification. The Colombia FTA is long overdue, and President Obama’s change of heart is a welcome step for America and Colombia alike. As the White House notes, American workers will immediately benefit from the agreement:
It is, in a way, unsurprising that the president gave Bogota a brief nod during his State of the Union address. After all, In 2010 State of the Union address, the president claimed, “we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea and Panama and Colombia.” And, in 2009, President Obama told Colombian president Alvaro Uribe that he was “confident that ultimately we can strike a deal that is good for the people of Colombia and good for the people of the United States.” Yet, no such deal has been struck.
Speaking to reporters at the G-20 summit in Toronto, President Obama declared his intention to complete the U.S.–South Korea free-trade agreement, which was signed by the Bush administration three years ago. “I want to make sure that everything is lined up properly by the time I visit Korea in November, and in the few months that follow that, I intend to present it to Congress,” Obama said. “It is the right thing to do for our country, it is the right thing to do for Korea.”
Dr. Antanas Mockus is a bit of an oddity in Latin American. He has a Lithuanian name, an Amish-looking beard, walks around wearing sunflowers, and gives rambling, professorial answers when you ask him a question. He's a stark contrast to the "machismo" we've come to expect from Latin American politicians, but in a few months Colombians will likely be calling him "El Presidente." Perhaps more importantly, he will enter the history books as the first world leader ever elected as a member of a Green Party.
Last week, U.S. and Brazilian officials signed a defense pact that will significantly enhance bilateral military ties. “This agreement will lead to a deepening of U.S.-Brazil defense cooperation at all levels,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared. While the agreement does not explicitly discuss U.S. access to Brazilian bases, it does mention naval visits. I would not be surprised if it eventually led to some form of U.S. military presence in Brazil.