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Colombia’s Risky Peace Gambit

11:05 AM, Oct 3, 2013 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
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“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.

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