As the Colombian economy grows, its history may go backwards


In the past two years, coca production in Colombia has increased by 50%, and in areas where the drug is produced, killings of local political activists are escalating even more rapidly. Last year alone saw a 45% increase.

The killings mostly occur in areas that were at war from 1964 to 2016, when FARC rebels and the government signed a revolutionary peace accord. President Juan Manuel Santos received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the conflict, and the country has expressed enthusiasm for ending the civil war.

Santos participating in the peace celebrations. AFP / Archives

However, just two years later, Santos leaves office with approval ratings. below 14%. Although his popularity increased after the peace agreement, Santos suffered a significant drop in popularity after corruption revelations. In March 2017, he admitted to receiving illegal campaign contributions from Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht. After the publication of the Paradise Papers, it was also revealed that he had controlled two Barbados-based companies to avoid taxes.

The apparent corruption has not played well with the Colombian people, especially given the dire economic situation in the country. In 2014, Colombia lost $ 90 billion (about 24%) of its GDP, largely due to a global collapse in fuel and commodity prices, which accounted for a large portion of the country’s exports.

On top of these woes, for those living in former war zones, the country’s economic woes have meant that the central government has neglected to fill the power vacuum left by armed groups.

“The territories controlled by the FARC are left without authorities,” a filmmaker working in the region told Atlantic. “The Colombian state has never been present in many of these regions. And so in the Cauca [in the Colombian countryside] alone, there are currently 12 different armed groups operating now, mainly as drug trafficking organizations.

Men draw a map of Colombia showing the places where militants have been killed since the signing of the peace agreement. (AFP)

Since the economic crisis, Santos has brought in a series of austerity measures and tax hikes that have helped the government’s balance sheets, but not his own popularity. A 3% sales tax hike in 2016 was particularly damaging. Santos’ repeated attempts to reduce the costs of the country’s universal health program and funding for education cost him popularity and proved difficult to implement in the face of the Colombian constitution’s guarantee to protect the health of all citizens.

The president’s unpopularity has stuck a knife into the heart of the establishment’s electoral chances.

Santos is a thoroughbred of the Colombian political class – his lineage dates back to the founding of the country and his family tree is littered with 20th century elected officials and newspaper editors. The consequences of the national mood were an electoral disaster for the Party of Unity of Santos, whose candidate obtained only 7% of the votes in the first round of the presidential election.

The emergence of the far left and the far right

It is not only Santos’ party that has lost face. The Colombian government has been led by a coalition of center-left and right-wing parties for some time now, but the legislative elections in March weakened that coalition. Representatives of the far left and the far right have emerged from the ashes of Santos’ political legacy.

From the right, Iván Duque is the political protege of Santos’ presidential predecessor, Álvaro Uribe. The revocation of Santos’ tax hike is his main topic of economic discussion. On the left, Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogotá who turned to politics after a career as a paramilitary rebel, runs on promises of increased spending on health and education.

“The FARC got a better deal than their victims, and I am the one who will redress this injustice,” Duque said in a speech in Bogotá. Notably, in a popular vote referendum held several months after the deal was signed, 50.2% voted against.

Duque has promised to change the Santos peace deal, an implicit return to the policies of former President Uribe. Uribe’s tenure as president has been marked by working with right-wing paramilitaries and US anti-drug efforts to crush rebels and drug traffickers in the countryside. Thousands of people have been killed in the violence, prompting a recent Supreme Court investigation into Uribe’s alleged intimate ties to drug traffickers and death squads, and his role in shaping anti-communist paramilitary groups which killed and displaced even more civilians than all the guerrilla groups put together.

Petro’s support is strongest in urban areas like the national capital, among the Afro-Colombian minority, and with campesinos (peasants). Peasant political organizers are the first victims of rural assassinations.

However, 10 days before the election, conventional wisdom considers Duque’s victory a fait accompli.

In the first round, Duque received 39%, which wasn’t quite enough to win. The turning point was when the 3rd runner-up in the first round, Sergio Fajardo, former mayor and governor, announced that he would not vote in the next election. The move is expected to divide his supporters between Duque and Petro, leaving Petro with a 2.7 million vote gap to fill. As of this writing, it looks like Duque’s post is winning.

And the international response?

International trade in the Colombian currency is booming, as investors salute on Duque’s pro-business outlook, his promises of tax cuts, a rebound in the oil market and Colombia’s fiscal solvency. According to Market surveillance, “Emerging market bulls are taking notice of Colombia, hailing it as a rising star and predicting that its currency will be a global beater in 2018.”

[Left: Results of the first round (green for Fajardo, blue for Duque, purple for Petro). Fajardo’s green sliver is the capital Bogota. Right: UN estimates of the number of people in need of humanitarian  assistance as a result of the civil war. On June 5, the Colombian Agricultural Society announced its support for Duque. Support from this business group reflects favor from those who stand to benefit from the development of the country’s agricultural inland.]

Yet Colombia’s difficulty in maintaining peace in rural areas is consistent with its history.

After the death of founding father Simon Bolivar, the country was divided between conservative and liberal factions, making 1840-1903 a “time of civil wars”. It ended with the “1000 Day War”, a clash unleashed in coffee-growing regions suffering from a global drop in the price of coffee. From 1948 to 1958, the Colombian Conservative Party and the Colombian Liberal Party waged a horrific civil war called “La Violencia” mainly in the countryside, resulting in the deaths of at least 200,000 people. The conflict was sparked after a newly elected Conservative government used the military and police to suppress the Liberal Party, which in turn mobilized peasants to fight the government. After some administrative reversals, fighting broke out between a number of guerrilla groups made up of peasants on both sides of the political spectrum.

The FARC agreement ended a 50-year conflict that left more than 220,000 dead and nearly 7 million internally displaced.

While Duque’s election may be good news for attracting international investment, his promise to revise the peace deal could push Colombia back to a more violent past.

LIMA CHARLIE NEWS, with Diego Lynch

[Editor’s Note: The following was added to the article on June 9, 2018: “Notably, in a popular vote referendum held several months after the deal was struck, 50.2% voted against it.”]

[Title Image: FARC members attending the September 17-23 National Guerrilla Conference in Caqueta department, Colombia, on September 17, 2016, just prior to the peace deal. (AFP Photo/Luis Acosta)]

Lima Charlie provides global news, information and analysis by military veterans and service members around the world.

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