Ending a very close race, incumbent Juan Manuel Santos won a decisive five-point victory Sunday in Colombia’s second round of presidential elections, beating challenger Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who had won the first round in an upset. The campaign centered on one issue: the future of the Santos-led peace process under way in Havana between the Colombian government and the rebel group FARC that may have the potential to end a half century of civil war.
Zuluaga, who had been hand-chosen by Santos’ predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, and ran in opposition to the peace talks (though he had softened his position after the first round), quickly conceded defeat this Sunday. Uribe, however, wasted no time in claiming that the elections had been marred by “massive fraud,” a charge quickly rejected by international electoral observers.
Santos’ victory has certainly dealt a major blow to ‘Uribismo,’ as the rightwing movement around Uribe is known. Colombians largely seem to support the peace process as well as efforts to improve relations with neighboring countries Venezuela and Ecuador, and it looks as though few were convinced by Uribe’s wild charges during the campaign that the peace process would open the path to “Castrochavismo,” allowing the “FARC to run this country from Havana.” Uribe has long loomed over Colombian politics, but Zuluaga’s defeat signals that his influence may be waning, even on the political right. Meanwhile, Santos’ support of the peace talks won him the backing of some of Colombia’s most prominent business people, in addition to endorsements from indigenous groups and left-wing coalitions.
Uribe might have thought twice about investing so much political capital in opposing the negotiations. While it is true that the peace talks had the support of Venezuela and Cuba, they also had the support of virtually every other country in the region, as well as the United Nations, in addition to broad domestic support. More to the point, the peace talks have the support of the United States. Just a month ago, on May 18th, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed U.S. support for the peace process, which, given that they were the main election issue, arguably amounted to an endorsement of Santos.
While he was president, Uribe was the U.S.’s closest regional ally. At the time, his antagonistic posture toward neighbors Venezuela and Ecuador, including his repeated accusations of their support for the FARC, were highly appreciated by the U.S.. More recently, his accusations tying Santos to Cuba, with their anti-Castro fervor, seem to come right out of the U.S.’s Cold War-era playbook.
Santos, meanwhile, has started to move away from U.S. policy on several important fronts; for example, emerging as a champion of regional cooperation and as a key participant in a regional effort to change course in the U.S.-led “War on Drugs.” But despite what might be a natural preference for a more pro-U.S. candidate (as any Uribe-endorsed candidate surely would have been), the U.S. simply might be unable to publicly oppose the almost universally-supported peace talks without risking serious and coordinated push-back. This development can be seen as another sign of Latin America’s growing independence from the U.S., though it’s important to remember that Santos also continues to cooperate with the U.S. militarily.
The Peace Talks, Paramilitaries, and the “War on Drugs”
The negotiations have taken on momentum over the past year. Before the election, a framework emerged that will include the vital input of the civil war’s victims as well as mutual acknowledgement of responsibility for crimes committed during the course of the war. Perhaps most importantly, the talks have now widened to include negotiations between the government and Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, the ELN, increasing the reach of any potential deal. Since the talks began, the Colombian government claims that violence committed against civilians has significantly decreased.
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about these peace talks, particularly about the chances that they will lead to real justice for the victims. While the FARC have committed many human rights abuses, the Colombian military and paramilitary groups with which the military has closely worked have been responsible for much of the violence targeting civilians. During the course of the war, paramilitaries alone have been responsible for up to 80 percent of all of the killings in the country, according to the United Nations. The fact that there has been strong collusion between these paramilitary groups and some senior Colombian officials is not a point of serious debate. In a move that bodes ill for the prospects for justice, in March, the government announced that it would release hundreds of paramilitary soldiers who had served lenient sentences for extremely serious crimes, continuing a demobilization process that has been widely criticized.
It is also almost guaranteed that the U.S. government and multinational companies, like DynCorp and Chiquita Banana, which have played a role in fueling this conflict over the decades, will also not be held to account. The U.S. has used the pretext of anti-narcotics campaigns to justify funding the Colombian military and Colombian political allies despite longstanding evidence of their ties to paramilitary groups. Paramilitaries, who are major players in the drug trade themselves, have among a litany of other abuses, declared war on unions. In 2006, the “parapolitics” scandal story broke in Colombia, and 45 Colombian congressmen and seven governors were eventually convicted of ties to some of the country’s most notorious paramilitary groups. But even after these ties were brought out in the open, the U.S. government still defended the military aid it gave to Colombia. At the height of the scandals, a partial, temporary freeze was enacted by a handful of Senate Democrats against the wishes of the Bush administration. After the even more shocking “false positives” scandal emerged in 2008, when it was discovered that the Colombian army had hired paramilitaries to kill civilians and dress the bodies up as rebel fighters, declassified documents released by the National Security Archive show that the U.S. knew as early as 1994 that U.S.-backed Colombian security forces had ties to groups engaging in “death squad tactics” similar to those brought to light in the false positives scandal. There is evidence that the U.S. was still providing resources directly to some of these military units as recently as 2010. If the U.S. role is left out of the discussion and paramilitary groups are not held to account, this could diminish the credibility of the peace process.
But despite these obvious shortcomings, the peace talks may eventually lead to a huge change in the so-called “War on Drugs” in Colombia. An under-discussed aspect of the negotiations is the fact that both the government and the FARC have already agreed on key issues, including commitments to seriously limit the U.S.-led aerial eradication program (where tens of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars are spent annually to spray powerful herbicides on coca plants in rural Colombia), and also on a commitment to implement badly-needed land reforms for rural Colombians as well as programs to create economic incentives for Colombian farmers to grow crops other than coca. If these reforms are implemented, many Colombian subsistence farmers may one day be able to lead normal lives, instead of being terrorized by aerial eradication that makes no distinction between coca plants and the food that farmers grow to feed themselves. Aerial eradication has entailed huge human and environmental costs, while being shockingly ineffective [PDF] in limiting cocaine production, despite U.S. claims to the contrary.
At the same time, other countries are taking a stand against harmful anti-drug policies. In Peru, which in 2012 overtook Colombia as the world’s largest producer of cocaine, the government recently began a program to provide assistance to farmers to grow alternative crops. Since then, the reduction in the production of coca has been so significant that the government recently decided to postpone forced eradication efforts (Peru and Bolivia had both already banned aerial eradication in the past). The government of Peru also recognized that popular opposition to forced eradication is one of the reasons why the remnants of Peru’s Shining Path guerrillas have had some popular support. If the Colombian peace talks succeed, there is a chance that the decades-long struggles of Colombian farmers against aerial eradication might eventually take a decisive positive turn in the place where the policy has caused the most harm—where for a time, an astounding 8 percent of the arable land in Colombia was subject to the program.
In the coming months, it will be interesting to see how the U.S. reacts to developments in the peace talks, which may have big implications for U.S. policy in Latin America. Despite U.S. support for the talks, the U.S. government has been clear that it wants aerial eradication and other “Drug War” policies to continue. But if the talks are successful, there is a chance that the U.S. may be forced to accept real policy change—not just a curtailment of destructive counter-drug policies, but perhaps also a process of demilitarization that might weaken the U.S.’s main military foothold in the region.