Commentary Magazine


Topic: FARC

Drama Brewing in Colombia

Imagine if Teddy Roosevelt had not run himself against his protege William Howard Taft in 1912 but had sponsored another candidate who went on to beat both Taft and Woodrow Wilson. Or alternatively imagine a presidential election in which John McCain and Mitt Romney are battling it out not in the primaries but in the general election. 

No analogy is exact but that gives you a bit of the flavor of the Colombian presidential election. The first place finisher, with 29.25 percent, was former Finance Minister Oscar Ivan Zuluaga. In second place was the incumbent president, Juan Manual Santos, with 25.69 percent. Since neither man got more than 50 percent (three other candidates split the rest of the vote), they will have a second-round runoff on June 15.

The numbers do not reveal the extraordinary drama behind the campaign, which was characterized by charges of cheating and skullduggery from both campaigns. Zuluaga came from almost nowhere to run ahead of an incumbent who was widely viewed as a shoo-in for reelection not long ago. This turn of events was due almost entirely to the intervention of former President Alvaro Uribe, who left office in 2010. Santos was his former defense minister and designated successor but, like TR turning on Taft, Uribe grew disenchanted with his protege, in no small part, one suspects, because Uribe misses the limelight. 

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Imagine if Teddy Roosevelt had not run himself against his protege William Howard Taft in 1912 but had sponsored another candidate who went on to beat both Taft and Woodrow Wilson. Or alternatively imagine a presidential election in which John McCain and Mitt Romney are battling it out not in the primaries but in the general election. 

No analogy is exact but that gives you a bit of the flavor of the Colombian presidential election. The first place finisher, with 29.25 percent, was former Finance Minister Oscar Ivan Zuluaga. In second place was the incumbent president, Juan Manual Santos, with 25.69 percent. Since neither man got more than 50 percent (three other candidates split the rest of the vote), they will have a second-round runoff on June 15.

The numbers do not reveal the extraordinary drama behind the campaign, which was characterized by charges of cheating and skullduggery from both campaigns. Zuluaga came from almost nowhere to run ahead of an incumbent who was widely viewed as a shoo-in for reelection not long ago. This turn of events was due almost entirely to the intervention of former President Alvaro Uribe, who left office in 2010. Santos was his former defense minister and designated successor but, like TR turning on Taft, Uribe grew disenchanted with his protege, in no small part, one suspects, because Uribe misses the limelight. 

The ostensible cause of their break were the peace talks that Santos has launched to get FARC, the long-running rebel group which has been battling the state since the mid-1960s, to finally lay down its arms. Uribe views the negotiations, which have been going on in Havana, as a sell-out to the rebels and Zuluaga has echoed his view. Santos, on the other hand, believes that the talks, which have already made progress, have the potential to bring peace.

To an outsider, it is not always easy to tell why Uribe is so worked up over talks being pursued by his former partner in the battle against FARC. The fact that peace is now possible is due in large measure to the policies that Uribe implemented while in office. But if Zuluaga wins it is likely that the peace talks will end, although Zuluaga has left himself an opening to continue negotiations if FARC shows its sincerity by stopping its armed struggle.

Whatever happens, Colombia is likely to remain Washington’s closest ally in Latin America. Indeed, while other countries in the region are seeing the emergence of anti-Yanqui leaders inspired by the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Colombia is seeing a run-off between two conservative, hawkish, pro-American candidates. That’s good news.

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The FARC is Weak; The Taliban is Strong

I recently returned from Colombia, where the armed forces continue to wage war on FARC but are now starting to look beyond this conflict to imagine what peace—or some semblance thereof—might look like. Such confidence might seem unwarranted, considering that FARC has been battling the government since the mid-1960s, making it one of the longest-running guerrilla groups in the world. Yet over the past decade FARC has suffered sharp setbacks, including the loss of senior commanders in targeted strikes, and it has agreed to come to the negotiating table.

Some see this as a cynical ploy on FARC’s part, trying to gain some breathing room to come back stronger than ever. But that’s not how senior officials in the Colombian armed forces view the situation: They think that FARC is serious about making a deal.

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I recently returned from Colombia, where the armed forces continue to wage war on FARC but are now starting to look beyond this conflict to imagine what peace—or some semblance thereof—might look like. Such confidence might seem unwarranted, considering that FARC has been battling the government since the mid-1960s, making it one of the longest-running guerrilla groups in the world. Yet over the past decade FARC has suffered sharp setbacks, including the loss of senior commanders in targeted strikes, and it has agreed to come to the negotiating table.

Some see this as a cynical ploy on FARC’s part, trying to gain some breathing room to come back stronger than ever. But that’s not how senior officials in the Colombian armed forces view the situation: They think that FARC is serious about making a deal.

The latest news from Havana, where the negotiations are being conducted, suggests they may be right: FARC and the Colombian government have just reached agreement on the first, and most contentious, issue in their talks–land reform designed to benefit poor farmers. This does not guarantee the success of the talks but it is an important breakthrough. As the Wall Street Journal notes:

There are four items left on the agenda that Mr. Santos and the FARC agreed to last year as a road map for the peace talks. The next topic under discussion will be the FARC’s participation in electoral politics. Other items include getting the FARC out of the cocaine trade; reintegrating fighters into civil society; and support for victims and the need to uncover the truth about atrocities allegedly committed by the FARC.

Various Colombian officials told me, however, that land reform was the hardest issue on the table. With that out of the way, the odds of success on the other agenda items greatly increase.

Of course, even if FARC accepts a deal, that will not be binding on every guerrilla commander. Some will no doubt continue to battle on, just as IRA factions have done since the 1998 Good Friday Accord. And, considering the close links between FARC and narco-traffickers, other fighters may simply become full-time drug runners. But it would be a very big deal if the majority of FARC were to lay down its arms. It would be good news not only for Colombia but also for its most important foreign ally–the United States–which has spent considerable resources via Plan Colombia over the past decade to bring about this very outcome.

The Obama administration would love to see a similar breakthrough in talks with the Taliban but it won’t happen anytime soon, because there is a major difference between Colombia and Afghanistan: FARC has suffered far greater blows on the battlefield than the Taliban have. It is impossible to reach accord with a determined insurgency until you can convince its leaders that they will not win at gunpoint. The Taliban, however, evidently remain convinced that they can still prevail with the use of force. And with the U.S. pledging to pull all its combat troops out by the end of 2014, they may very well be right.

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Why Colombia-FARC Talks May Succeed

Colombian President Juan Manual Santos has announced that he will launch this fall into peace talks with the FARC, Colombia’s major insurgent group, which has been battling the government since the 1960s. To see why these talks make sense and may succeed (even if there will be no ceasefire yet), it helps to look at why the previous round of peace talks, from 1998 to 2002, failed. It’s simple, really: A decade ago FARC was far from beaten. It was, in fact, on the verge of taking power. President Andres Pastrana had to offer them sovereignty over an area the size of Switzerland to even lure them to the peace table and predictably those talks failed. The only outcome was to encourage right-wing death squad violence as a counter to the FARC because ordinary Colombians had little faith in the ability of the government’s security forces to protect them.

President Alvaro Uribe, who took office in 2002, adopted a different approach—one that had more in common with the counterinsurgency strategies US troops have followed in Iraq and Afghanistan than with Pastrana’s defeated approach. By pushing security forces to provide security 24/7, and by pushing them to uphold the rule of law, Uribe (along with his then-defense minister, Santos) squeezed out the right-wing paramilitaries and dealt FARC crushing setbacks which have included the freeing of their high-profile hostages and the death or capture of many of their senior leaders.

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Colombian President Juan Manual Santos has announced that he will launch this fall into peace talks with the FARC, Colombia’s major insurgent group, which has been battling the government since the 1960s. To see why these talks make sense and may succeed (even if there will be no ceasefire yet), it helps to look at why the previous round of peace talks, from 1998 to 2002, failed. It’s simple, really: A decade ago FARC was far from beaten. It was, in fact, on the verge of taking power. President Andres Pastrana had to offer them sovereignty over an area the size of Switzerland to even lure them to the peace table and predictably those talks failed. The only outcome was to encourage right-wing death squad violence as a counter to the FARC because ordinary Colombians had little faith in the ability of the government’s security forces to protect them.

President Alvaro Uribe, who took office in 2002, adopted a different approach—one that had more in common with the counterinsurgency strategies US troops have followed in Iraq and Afghanistan than with Pastrana’s defeated approach. By pushing security forces to provide security 24/7, and by pushing them to uphold the rule of law, Uribe (along with his then-defense minister, Santos) squeezed out the right-wing paramilitaries and dealt FARC crushing setbacks which have included the freeing of their high-profile hostages and the death or capture of many of their senior leaders.

FARC continues to receive life support from Venezuela but it is at least possible now to imagine that the group may actually decide to give up the armed struggle as the FMLN did in El Salvador in 1992, as the IRA did in Northern Ireland in 1998, and as other insurgent groups have done. If it were to come about, peace would be made possible for the most obvious of reasons: the FARC has been essentially defeated militarily. Having no chance of shooting its way into power, it must now negotiate instead.

Those conditions, one might add, do not yet apply in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and Haqqanis have been battered but are far from defeated—hence there is little prospect of peace negotiations going anywhere in that country in the near term, notwithstanding all the loose chatter one hears in Washington on that subject.

 

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