Any presidential election in Colombia these days is a matter of high stakes.
That’s because the country – now South America’s second-largest economy and the United States’ most important ally on that continent – is in the midst of peace talks with Marxist guerrillas known as the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC, to end a half-century-long civil war.
So it’s little surprise that this Sunday’s contest is also a matter of high drama. President Juan Manuel Santos once seemed a shoo-in for re-election to a second four-year term. But he suddenly faces a fierce challenge from right-wing economist Oscar Iván Zuluaga, who opposes the peace negotiations Santos began last year in Cuba – and who has actually pulled ahead of Santos in polls for the May 25 first-round vote.
Or at least Zuluaga had edged in front before last weekend. Saturday night, a video surfaced that purportedly shows him receiving classified Colombian and U.S. military information – which may have been illegally hacked – to use against Santos.
Zuluaga insists the video is falsified and has rejected calls from his opponents to quit the race. But the scandal points up what a byzantine affair the Colombian election has become, one in which Santos’ predecessor, ex-boss and now bitter political enemy – former President and Zuluaga backer Alvaro Uribe, who is livid at Santos for seeking a truce with the FARC – has played an outsize role.
“Despite the fact that Santos holds out the promise of peace and that the [Colombian] economy is doing really well,” says University of Miami international studies professor Bruce Bagley, “this election campaign has opened him up to systematic criticism by Uribe.”
Few Americans watch Colombia as expertly as Bagley does, and he fingers three main reasons for Santos’ imperiled political fortunes:
First, Santos – who was Uribe’s defense minister and largely guided the counteroffensive that knocked the FARC on their heels in the 2000s – may well have overestimated how popular the peace talks would be.
“Most Colombians hate the FARC,” says Bagley. “Many families have been seriously and adversely affected by deaths or kidnappings or extortion.”
Second, Santos may well have underestimated how unpopular working with Colombia’s socialist next-door neighbor Venezuela – “to help keep everyone at the table in Havana,” as Bagley notes – would be. “Colombians don’t like Venezuela almost as much as they don’t like the FARC.”
Third, although Colombia is enjoying an economic boom, social justice basics like labor and land rights aren’t exactly robust there – hence 50 years of civil conflict that has killed some 220,000 people. In order to pass reforms to make Colombia more equitable, Bagley says Santos “has had to work very closely with the Colombian Congress, and the Colombian Congress is rated even more lowly than the U.S. Congress.”
As a result, Bagley concludes, Santos during his first term “has been forced in many senses to associate himself with three of the most hated political objects in the Colombian [gallery].”
So if Zuluaga should unseat Santos, what happens to the peace process?
“I think it will halt the process,” Bagley says. “Mr. Zuluaga has said openly that he would suspend these talks and demand that the FARC disarm immediately and deliver themselves to Colombian justice.”
That’s a delusion, Bagley adds, in large part because the guerrillas can still rely on their vast drug-trafficking resources, despite the FARC’s greatly deflated state compared to a decade ago. Still, I asked Bagley why peace is so important if Colombia seems to be doing so well without it. He echoes Santos’ argument: The conflict’s perpetuation is a millstone weighing down Colombia’s real development potential.
Because of the war, says Bagley, “the Colombian economy has taken a hit annually of between one and two percent of its GDP. Colombia would be an entirely different and more prosperous country today if it had not happened.
“To promote the kind of economic growth it really wants and needs, it’s essential for Colombia to solve these problems of the 20th Century now, in the second decade of the 21st.”
That’s especially true since Colombia’s other 20th-Century albatross, violent drug trafficking, won’t disappear even if the FARC do. The FARC this month agreed to quit their lucrative cocaine-peddling business if a peace accord is inked; but Bagley notes that new narco-related gangs called bandas criminales, or BACRIM, have emerged to pick up the slack.
The election is likely to go to a run-off vote between Santos and Zuluaga on June 15. But regardless of who wins, says Bagley, the U.S. “still can’t afford to pat its back and walk away from Colombia,” despite the $8 billion Washington spent helping to stabilize the country in the 2000s and despite the two-year-old U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement.
The stakes are still too high.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.