Why you should care
Peace between Colombia and its FARC rebels is finally taking shape, and with it Colombia is ready to seize its spot as an economic powerhouse in Latin America.
Ten years ago, the world had written Colombia off as a tangled wreckage of drug cartels, Marxist guerrillas and paramilitary death squads, where violence was the norm and hope was for the naïve. But now many Colombians are dreaming of what only a few years ago seemed unthinkable — a bright future.
At the country’s lowest point, guerrillas controlled a third of the national territory, barely a week went by without news of horrific massacres committed by paramilitaries and cartel turf wars led to city murder rates comparable to war zones. Ironically things improved after a round of peace talks collapsed in 2002. The military, working alongside brutal extra-legal paramilitaries, drove the guerrillas back to the jungles and mountains. A paramilitary demobilization followed in 2003. Violence plummeted, and people who had lived under the yoke of armed groups for years began to reclaim their lives.
Colombians are dreaming of what only a few years ago seemed unthinkable — a bright future.
A peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC by their Spanish initials) may now seal this resurrection. Peace talks began in Norway in 2012 and moved to Havana last month. “Of course I would have liked for this to advance faster,” said Columbian president Juan Manuel Santos, but putting a deadline on peace, he says, would be “counterproductive.” The latest agreement marked the first time in the history of the Colombian conflict that the FARC has agreed — even in principal — to participate in unarmed politics.
“Although we recognize we have a long way to go, we are on the threshold of a new Colombia,” said Santos, who was at the White House last week. President Barack Obama threw his support behind the peace talks and discussed increased trade with Colombia along with energy and technology-sharing agreements.
“Although we recognize we have a long way to go, we are on the threshold of a new Colombia,” said President Santos.
With the guerrillas gone and the paramilitaries fragmented into apolitical criminals, Colombia has the potential to lead the region in growth, challenging the likes of Peru and Panama for the title of Latin America’s star economic performer. Real challenges remain, but the country is now open for business, posting annual growth rates of between 4 and 5 percent.
“Peace in Colombia is the best business we can have,” said Santiago Pinzon, the executive director of the IT and BPO Chamber at the National Business Association of Colombia. Growth in foreign investment has jumped five-fold since 2001, mostly in energy and mining in newly secured regions. Cashing in on these vast natural resources is the basis of the government’s vision for Colombia’s economic future.
A newly confident business sector is forging a reputation for Colombia as an up-and-coming global destination in IT and services, spurred by state support for innovation. Major companies are taking notice — most notably Hewlett Packard, which in 2012 opened its Global Services Center in a purpose-built facility in the city of Medellin. “Confidence, trust and belief in Colombia is back,” Pinzon said. “It is a country with good branding and the macro-economic environment is appealing.”
Improved security has boosted tourism nearly three-fold since 2002.
Improved security has boosted tourism nearly three-fold since 2002, as curious foreigners — enticed by the cheeky slogan “Colombia: The only risk is wanting to stay” — explore what was previously no-go territory. The stunning beaches of Colombia’s Tayrona National Park, the rolling green mountains of the coffee district or the colonial city of Cartagena are now common destinations for even the most timid of travelers.
Having already experienced several failed peace processes, however, optimism does not come easily to Colombians. Recent polls show that while 62 percent support the peace process, 60 percent believe it is doomed to failure.
There’s still a long road ahead. There is agreement on just two out of six points, and the thorny issue of transitional justice — and whether self-proclaimed freedom fighters will acknowledge their crimes against humanity and accept a stint behind bars — is being kept till last. Popular former president Alvaro Uribe has launched a new political party, Uribe Democratic Center, to further his vocal opposition to the peace talks. The 2014 elections may become a choice between Uribe’s plans for a fight to the death with FARC and Santos’s knotty negotiations.
There also remains the problem of what to do with approximately 8,000 demobilizing men and women with little to no formal education. “In Colombia we don’t have a culture of reconciliation,” said Alirio Arroyave, an ex-guerrilla from Colombia’s second largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army, who demobilized as part of a breakaway peace movement in the 1990s. “The danger is that these people will pass from organized violence to unorganized violence, which could be much more dangerous.”
Jeremy McDermott, a director at organized crime think tank InSight Crime who has investigated FARC’s post-peace prospects, sees a risk that factions could criminalize and continue with drug trafficking, extortion and illegal mining — something that has happened with past guerrilla and paramilitary demobilizations.
Even with such obstacles, the future that Colombians yearn for is now within sight, but after half a century of civil conflict, they know better than to reach for it too soon.