Colombian contradictions

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A global partner of NATO and new member of the OECD, Colombia is still wrapped up in its past and the fierce contradictions that threaten peace.

To this day, Colombia represents a unique case in Latin America. After over half a century of internal armed conflict, causing tens of thousands of casualties and forcing millions of people out of their homes, the country has managed to build a modern economy and society. Even though little time has passed since the signing of a peace deal with the FARC, present-day Colombia is a fairly stable country. It ranks as the fourth Latin American economy after Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, with one of the highest GDP growth rates on the subcontinent: the annual growth rate has averaged over 3% in the last seven years.

Colombia has recently achieved two important goals, thanks in part to the peace deal and the flourishing of its Andean cities, which have become the country’s engine of growth. This is especially true of Cali and Medellín, two cities that managed to reinvent themselves and shake off the stigma of their past as drug capitals. Colombia has signed an accession agreement to become a member of the OECD – thus becoming the third Latin American country to join the Organization after Mexico and Chile – and was chosen by NATO as one of its “global partners”, a category of countries which join the Atlantic alliance while choosing their individual level of engagement case by case. NATO’s partners across the globe are very different from one another: some countries, such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, are experiencing conflicts involving NATO; others, such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand, have become partners on account of their strategic position on the geopolitical map. As NATO’s first Latin American partner, Colombia continues to play host to a large US military presence in South America.

US agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration and the CIA have fought epic wars against the “communist threat” and drug trafficking in Colombia, failing to defeat both while, at the same time, leveraging their presence in the country to extend their influence over the rest of the subcontinent. Now NATO is taking over from Washington, having recently established that its global partners can develop individual cooperation programmes on security issues and actively contribute to its operations, including military ones. But Colombia will not necessarily have to take part in NATO military action, as emphasized by outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos, who signed the partnership agreement and only mentioned intelligence sharing.

Nevertheless, Colombia’s new status is spreading unease in the region. Only once in the past had a Latin American State tried to join NATO, i.e. Carlos Menem’s Argentina in the 1990s, but the country had failed to achieve full membership. It is not so much the fear of NATO’s intervention in potential conflicts among South American States that causes concern, as much as the likelihood that the US agencies’ intelligence centers spread all over Colombia will continue to operate under the broader umbrella of NATO in order to gain information about the neighboring countries: first and foremost, Venezuela, but also Brazil. In short, after the end of a conflict that saw massive intervention by the United States, today’s Colombia is re-establishing its historical alliance with Washington, an alliance that has always been frowned upon by its neighbours.

A place marked by extreme contradictions, Colombia is also a country where the excruciating wounds of the past are still open, despite the peace deal sealed with the FARC in 2016, after 4 year of talks in Havana. It is worth noting that the war in Colombia has never been a “linear” conflict, i.e. one solely fought between State security forces and a rebel group. Indeed, the conflict provided an alibi for large-scale land grabs, the increasing military and financial power of drug cartels, the systematic murder of human right activists and trade unionists, and the horrific violence perpetrated against civilians, often disguised as counter-guerrilla operations. The agreement between the State and the FARC left out three of the multiple actors actually involved in the conflict: the paramilitaries, landowners and drug cartels. It is precisely these “absentees” who are now undermining a successful implementation of the agreement: in areas that were “liberated” from the FARC, a dirty war is being fought over the land and coca fields once under guerrilla control. As always throughout the history of this conflict, the victims are poor peasants and, above all, human rights activist and trade unionists. In this sense, not much has changed in Colombia, with the only difference being that the responsibility once shared between the State and the guerrilla is now concentrated in Bogotà.

The latest presidential election was held in this mixed climate of uncertainty and optimism, and the outcome was expected to be decisive for the future of the peace process initiated by outgoing President and Nobel Prize for Peace winner Juan Manuel Santos. The result of the vote, however, raised several questions about Colombia’s delicate transition to peace. Three groups had a chance of winning: the ultra-conservatives headed by former President Álvaro Uribe (the hawk who was against the peace agreement with the FARC) backing cabdidate Iván Duque; the left of Gustavo Petro, former member of a guerrilla group and ex-mayor of Bogotà; and Sergio Fajardo’s coalition of centre-left parties with the Green Alliance, a very strong party in Colombia. In the first round the left and centre left – including the Liberal Party at its all-time low – received more than 50% of the vote altogether, while Duque, Uribe’s protégé, was leading the race with 39%. Moving on to the runoff election were Duque and Petro, who beat Fajardo by a few points. The two presidential candidates represented the clash between different models of society, neoliberalist for Duque and social-democratic for Petro, and they diverged especially on the topic of the peace agreements. Duque wanted a third revision of the peace deal, after the initial one was voted down in a referendum and later modified and approved by Parliament, while Petro wished to see it enforced on both sides.

Colombia’s recent history has been decisive for the final outcome of the election. While everyone saw that Duque is little more than Uribe’s puppet, that it would be better to leave the peace agreement as it is, and that extreme neoliberalism will lead to increased privatization and cuts in social and welfare spending, many found it simply impossible to vote for a candidate such as Gustavo Petro, a former Marxist and former member of the M19 guerrilla group. The votes that had won Sergio Fajardo third place in the first round, while generally coming from the centre left, were distributed fairly evenly between Duque, Petro and blank ballots. Since Duque was already ahead of the game, he won by a good margin.

Great responsibilities now rest on the shoulders of the new Colombian president. He could choose to become an extremist president acting as spokesman for Uribe, who is currently under investigation for his alleged ties with paramilitary groups. Or he could distance himself from extremist stances and move toward the liberal-catholic strand of conservatism of another important supporter of his, former President Andrés Pastrana. As for the deal with the FARC, which performed poorly in the parliamentary election last March, Duque might find a solution that allows him to impose harsher terms without blowing up the agreement. It will be much more difficult to get the big landowners to swallow the land reform proposed in the deal and to find resources to support the four million people displaced by the war, who need to be subsidized and returned to the land they lost during the conflict.

Iván Duque – a 41-year-old lawyer with a brilliant academic record in the US, but little political experience – holds the future of Colombia in his hands. If he manages to resist the siren’s call of the extremist forces that elected him, he will gain acceptance domestically and internationally, and will be able to build on it to stabilize the country. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time: peace prize winner Juan Manuel Santos had been Uribe’s Minister of Defence during the all-out war against the FARC, before breaking off and creating his own political force.

As a new member of the OECD and global partner with NATO, Colombia has all it takes to become a regional power, especially in a scenario marked by Venezuela’s collapse and Brazil’s instability. First, however, the country must heal its old wounds once and for all.

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