Tag: alvaro uribe

Peace Talks with the FARC: A Good Idea?

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said yesterday that his government will start “exploratory” peace talks with the FARC guerrillas, the oldest insurgency in the Americas. The announcement, which was widely expected in recent weeks, is highly controversial in Colombia. Is the Santos administration moving toward ending an armed conflict that has lasted over half a century and cost the lives of ten of thousands of Colombians? Or is the government agreeing to negotiate with terrorists, giving them a chance to regroup and continue their criminal activities such as drug trafficking?

There are many reasons not to trust the FARC. In 1998, then-president Andrés Pastrana opened high profile peace talks with the Marxist rebels. As a concession, Pastrana ceded the FARC control of a territory the size of Switzerland. The rebels used that neutral zone as a stronghold to consolidate their cocaine business—which gives them revenues of approximately $500 million a year—strengthen their recruitment, and launch deadly attacks against Colombia’s largest cities. By 2002, the peace talks had gone nowhere and the question among many officials in Washington and elsewhere was whether the Colombian government would survive.

Enter Álvaro Uribe, who was inaugurated as president in 2002 under rocket fire in Bogotá. Supported with military aid from Washington under Plan Colombia, Uribe launched a massive offensive against the FARC and struck several important blows to its leadership. During these years, most Colombians came to the realization that they were dealing with full blown terrorists and not simply with an ideologically driven peasant insurgency. The FARC rebels kidnapped hundreds of civilians, politicians and security forces for ransom, keeping some of them under inhumane conditions in the jungle for over a decade. Many died in captivity. They also attacked civilian targets in cities with bombs, killing scores of people. On February 4, 2008, millions of Colombians took to the streets under the chant “No Más FARC.”

Uribe’s military strategy proved successful in greatly diminishing violence in Colombia and severely weakening the FARC, whose troops halved in the last decade to approximately 8,000.

In 2010, Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s former defense minister who conducted some of the most successful attacks against the FARC guerrillas, was overwhelmingly elected president of Colombia. However, unlike Uribe’s hard-line approach, Santos from the beginning showed willingness to engage the FARC in peace talks, even though his government continued to pound on the guerrillas, killing its head Alfonso Cano last November.

Notwithstanding losing most of its old guard, the FARC rebels have been able to step up their attacks in the last year, inflicting painful losses on the armed forces and targeting the country’s energy infrastructure. The wave of attacks has led many Colombians to wonder whether the hard-fought security gains under Uribe are slipping away. This also raises questions about president Santos’ leadership. It is worth noting that over a year ago, Uribe—who remains very popular among a majority of Colombians—broke with Santos, accusing him of, among other things, being weak toward what he and many Colombians still regard as a terrorist group.

Thus the conundrum: Some Colombians see what WOLA’s Adam Isacson has described as a “hurting stalemate.” The Santos administration would be wise to give peace one more chance, the argument goes. It does so under very different conditions from a decade ago. The armed forces still have the upper hand on the ground. The economy grows at a very healthy pace (although it’s increasingly becoming dependent on oil and mining). And the cities and their surroundings are far safer now. The government’s strategy under this theory is pushing the FARC to the limit and then forcing the guerrillas to negotiate a peace settlement.

However, other Colombians think that Juan Manuel Santos is proving to be another puny president just like Andrés Pastrana. They feel that the current president’s well-known appetite for popularity and jet-setting around the world is driving his push for peace talks, and that the latest wave of attacks from the FARC are the result of the guerrillas’ realization that they are dealing with a weak president. They point out that the army hasn’t dealt an important blow to the rebels in more than six months, perhaps at Santos’ behest. Moreover, they note that nowadays the FARC is mostly a drug trafficking organization with a decentralized command structure. As long as cocaine production remains a highly profitable industry, most of the armed units that compose the FARC will remain in the business, regardless of the peace process. Something similar happened to the demobilized right-wing paramilitary groups, some of which have reemerged as regular criminal bands known as “bacrim.” I would add that violent drug trafficking groups are a plague that will haunt Colombia until drugs are legalized.

Both sides have solid arguments. But I tend to agree more with the skeptical wing. Ending one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts on the continent is a goal worth pursuing. However, there is no reason to believe that this is what the FARC want. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

The Balloon Effect in Cocaine Production in the Andes

The Wall Street Journal has a lengthy story today [requires subscription] about the booming cocaine business in Peru, where production has skyrocketed in recent years. The report serves a reminder of the balloon effect in U.S.-led efforts to eradicate cocaine production in the Andean region. Gil Kerlikowske, the Obama administration’s drug czar, has repeatedly pointed out that production in Colombia dropped by 61 percent between 2001 and 2009. But as the graph below illustrates, cocaine manufacturing has just moved back to Peru, which according to some estimates, might already be the world’s largest producer of cocaine:

* Average range of total production in the Andean region.
Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
 

As we can see, Peru was the world’s largest source of potential cocaine production back in the early 1990s, but production of coca moved to Colombia once the regime of Alberto Fujimori cracked down on drug trafficking. By 2000, Colombia was by far the largest producer. However, due to eradication efforts by then president Álvaro Uribe under the U.S.-sponsored Plan Colombia, production came down in that country. But it didn’t go away, it just moved back to Peru. Overall, the World Drug Report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that cocaine production levels in the Andes are pretty much the same as a decade ago.

Mr. Kerlikowske should present the whole picture next time he boasts about declining cocaine production in Colombia.

What Colombia Needs Is More Economic Freedom

The Washington Post had an interesting story a few days ago on poverty in Colombia, a country that is viewed by many as Washington’s closest ally in Latin America. Colombians are heading to the polls on May 30th to elect a new president, so we’ll be hearing more about that country and Alvaro Uribe’s legacy as president in the upcoming weeks.

Uribe has been credited—rightly so—with making Colombia more secure. Crime rates have fallen dramatically since he took office in 2002, right-wing paramilitaries have been disbanded (although many complain that most of them just moved into regular criminal activities), and the decades-old Marxist FARC guerrilla group, which not long ago threatened Colombia’s capital and main cities, has been dealt spectacular blows to its leadership and is now a shadow of its former self.

As a result of a more secure environment, the economy has experienced a boom. Foreign direct investment has ballooned, growth rates have shown robust numbers, while poverty and unemployment have gone down. There is no doubt that Colombians are better off today than in 2002. However, as the Post story points out, poverty is still stubbornly high, and neighboring countries such as Peru seem to be having better results in reducing it. Perhaps this has to do with one key ingredient that has been largely missing in Uribe’s recipe for development: a bolder push for economic freedom.

Let’s be fair: According to the World Bank’s Doing Business report, Colombia significantly improved the ease of doing business in recent years. This is not a small feat given Latin America’s well known taste for red tape. The Uribe administration has also negotiated free trade agreements with the United States, Canada and the European Union, among others. Unfortunately, the agreements with the U.S. and Canada are stalled in those countries’ legislatures due to concerns about Colombia’s record on labor rights. These concerns are overblown, as shown here in this case for the U.S.-Colombia FTA.

However, Colombia scores poorly on economic freedom. Consequently, the country’s outlook won’t brighten much more as long as it stifles its economy with high tax rates, burdensome labor regulations, bloated public spending, impoverishing tariffs, and weak protection of property rights and enforcement of contracts. A comprehensive economic agenda must be undertaken in all these areas if the country is going to repeat the successes of other South American countries such as Chile and Peru in tackling poverty.

Unfortunately, none of the leading presidential candidates is talking much about the need for economic reforms. Despite the gains of recent years, security still monopolizes the political debate in Colombia.