Diálogo / December 25, 2013
By Larry Luxner
The Colombian government is likely to reach a peace accord soon with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), even though the two sides are continuing to skirmish on the battlefield, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said recently.
The Colombian Armed Forces is now the most widely respected institution in the country — even more than the church and the government itself, Pinzón said in a wide-ranging speech at the Brookings Institution on Dec. 2, 2013. His comments came as peace talks continue in Havana between FARC negotiators and representatives of the Colombian government to end what has become Latin America’s longest-running rebel insurgency.
The vast majority of Colombians have confidence in the short-term and long-term security of the country, Pinzón said.
“Around 90 percent of Colombians, when they talk about security problems, they are not talking any more about the country falling to an illegal organization or to a terrorist organization,” Pinzón said, referring to the FARC. “After technically defeating those enemies of the Colombian people, what we’re telling them is, maybe it’s time for you to get out of this situation. We will continue to pressure them every day, everywhere, so they understand that they have only one exit with dignity: to agree for an option of peace and getting into the political system which in the end is part of what our democracy conceives.”
Pinzón added: “There are challenges, but I think we are moving forward with strength. We will keep moving the bar as far as we can so these criminals understand that the Colombian people do not want this type of violence anymore. My frank opinion is that Colombia will reach peace.”
Pinzón’s speech was sponsored by Brookings’ Latin America Initiative and the Center for 21st Century Security. It came the day before President Obama received Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the Oval Office and congratulated the visiting 62-year-old head of state “on his bold and brave efforts to bring about a lasting and just peace inside of Colombia in his negotiations with the FARC.”
Pinzón said the two countries have been military allies for years, and that in 2000, when Plan Colombia began, U.S. funding as a percentage of Colombia’s total defense budget was nearly 20 percent. Today, it’s less than 1 percent, Pinzón said.
“This shows first the will of the Colombian people to pay our own bills, particularly to recover our nation, to recover our security,” he said. “We certainly appreciate what we get from the U.S., and what we still we need to get, but showing that these only go to quality capabilities … exceptional in technology and knowledge that can really give a certain push.”
While Colombian authorities are negotiating a peace accord with FARC leaders, the country’s economy is booming, Pinzón said. The government’s efforts to reduce poverty are having a positive impact.
“What we care most about these days is reducing poverty. Just five years ago, we had a poverty rate of 52 percent, and extreme poverty was 40 percent. Now our unemployment rate is only 9 percent after more than a decade in double digits,” he said.
Colombian security forces have made important inroads against organized crime groups which produce and traffic cocaine. Colombian security forces seized about 600 tons of cocaine from January 2013 through mid-December, authorities said. Colombia is no longer the world’s largest producer of cocaine, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODOC).
Colombian security forces must continue to be vigilant, Pinzón said. The country’s mountainous terrain and ungoverned spaces still present problems for the Armed Forces, Pinzón said, noting that “when you don’t have control, someone else will fill that absence. We are putting pressure in their own bases at the same time, for the first time ever.”
A peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC would dramatically open economic opportunities for the country’s 46 million residents, participants at the Brookings event said.
Cooperation between Colombia and the United States should continue, said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, (CSIS), a Washington-based think tank.
“The success of Plan Colombia does not mean the [U.S.-Colombia] bilateral relationship should stop evolving. It needs to be adapting and moving forward. So many things are possible now that weren’t possible before,” Meacham said.
Luís Carlos Villegas, Colombia’s newly appointed ambassador to the United States, touted the health of Colombia’s economy during a speech at CSIS on Dec. 6, 2013.
Ten years ago, the size of Colombia’s economy was less than $100 billion, ranking seventh in Latin America. Today, its GDP is nearly $400 billion, ranking Colombia third in the region, Villegas said.
“Back then, foreign trade was $25 billion a year. Now it’s $120 billion. I don’t think there’s another emerging market that has seen such dramatic positive change,” said Villegas. “When we first started negotiating with FARC in 1998, about 60 percent of Colombians were living under the poverty line. Today, it’s three in 10, and extreme poverty is in the single digits. For the first time in 200 years, the majority of our people are middle-class.”
With Colombia’s GDP likely to grow at five percent in 2014 and a public budget next year of $115 billion — up from $30 billion 10 years ago — the government can now afford to build roads, improve infrastructure and expand health and education networks like never before, he said.
“Ten years ago, our society had a lack of hope in the future,” Villegas explained. “These days, we are hopeful, but the conflict — even if it’s small and very localized — is an obstacle to faster economic development. So in order to become a developed country in the next generation, we need to remove the conflict. Every victim we can save from this conflict, every terrorist attempt we prevent is a gain for Colombian society.”
The agenda for the peace talks now underway in Havana focus on six broad categories, Villegas said: rural development, political participation, demobilization, the fight against drug trafficking and illegal crops, victims’ compensation and ratification of the agreement by the people.
The first two points have already been agreed to by both parties, the ambassador said. “We have agreed with FARC to build a new opposition statute. The unarmed FARC as a political party has to be at the table with other parties and shape a new opposition. That’s obvious,” he said. “But it hasn’t been done in Colombia in the last 40 years.”
When it comes to drug trafficking, Villegas said may someday be possible to remove Colombia from the cocaine equation completely.
“It sounds like a simple subject, but imagine the consequences for the world if Colombia had a zero drug crop,” the ambassador explained. “We’ve moved from 200,000 hectares of coca to 40,000 hectares. We are no longer the biggest producer of coca leaf, and we could move to zero with FARC’s help in eradicating illicit crops. Yet the balloon effect is something we have to take care of. If markets still exist, someone else will produce that coca. Hopefully it won’t be us.”