TSG IntelBrief: Is Colombia Finally Maturing as a Regional Power?
July 9, 2013

TSG IntelBrief: Is Colombia Finally Maturing as a Regional Power?

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Bottom Line Up Front

• For the first time in five decades, the citizens of Colombia are faced with the hopeful prospect of enduring peace.  In October 2012, operating from a position of both popular and military strength, the government began formal peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in a bid to reach a political settlement and halt the nation’s modern tradition of violence.  

• While success of the peace talks is not guaranteed, the FARC has been significantly weakened over the last ten years even as the government has become increasingly competent. At stake are the maturation of a promising democracy and the potential for prosperous socioeconomic development.

• Even as Colombia’s leaders struggle to maintain momentum at home, the nation’s international credibility is slowly growing. Nearly 80 UN member states have offered support for the Colombian peace talks, and the nation has reportedly reached an informal agreement with NATO to promote human rights accountability and transparency in the Colombian military.

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As of early July 2013, Colombia is poised to emerge as a potential South American success story. Blessed with rich natural resources and an ethnically diverse cultural blend derived from decedents of its original native inhabitants—Spanish colonists, Africans originally brought to the country as slaves, and a swell of immigrants from Europe and the Middle East—Colombia’s social and economic potential has long been obstructed by war and bloodshed. With a little more patience, as well as political skill and popular perseverance, that may all be about to change.

International Perceptions Differ from Colombia’s Reality

Colombia is uniquely positioned with tactical shipping advantages that greatly enhance the nation’s standing in today’s constantly evolving global market. The only country in South America with two sea coasts (the Pacific and Caribbean), Colombia is also unique in that there are five established, vibrant, and credible commercial hubs in the country: Bogota, Medellin, Barranquilla, Cali, and Cartagena. Consequently, the nation has become a free market economy with major commercial and investment ties to the United States, Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

Combined with its geographic advantages, almost ten years of competent—though not by any means perfect—political and military leadership have brought extraordinary change to Colombia in terms of economic development and improvements in its national security. Political stability, a growing middle class, and safer streets have created economic expansion in Colombia that, coupled with the conservative lending practices by the nation’s financial institutions, has lessened the impact of the global economic crisis that has devastated so many national economies.

International Interest…and Support

There is perhaps no better indicator that the international community regards Colombia as a nation on the mend than its emergent and credible reputation with the United Nations and its tentative (though not yet publicly verified) agreement with NATO for military assistance. In a time when Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Venezuela are proverbial thorns under the saddle of Latin America’s international relations, this is an envious position to hold. Even so, Colombia still has its share of problems—a fact not unnoticed abroad.

Despite the outpouring of support from UN member states for the FARC peace talks, many nations expressed reservations about the nation’s progress with respect to social and human rights. Spain, Australia, and Poland all expressed concerns over the continued practice of extrajudicial killings by Colombia’s paramilitary groups—some of which are allegedly supported by officers in the nation’s armed forces or by local politicians (though public reporting indicates that the “evidence” of such support is largely anecdotal).
 
Other national representatives commented on the slow (some argue nonexistent) pace of the long promised reparations to victims of violence, especially women and minorities. But those criticisms seem well balanced with progress noted by representatives from Holland, Mexico, New Zealand, and Nigeria, who praised Colombia for its Victims and Land Restitution Law and the country’s transitional justice model as a whole. That very model (or some new version) is sure to face further challenges if the peace talks are successful since some influential members of government are already demanding that, as a condition of ending military operations, the FARC must compensate past victims and not commit further crimes against humanity.

NATO in Colombia—Why It Matters

The FARC is not the only entity with human rights issues in Colombia, and it is here that any potential agreement with NATO begins to hold value for Colombia’s citizens and the international community alike. This was not lost on Venezuela and Bolivia, which quickly raised a somewhat panicked hue and cry following recent (incorrect) press reports that Colombia was joining NATO. The complaint rings rather hollow given that Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro has just announced the creation of a new “worker’s militia” of two million soldiers. (Note: Colombia is not eligible for membership in NATO because the nation does not meet a NATO rule restricting membership to North Atlantic nations.)

Regional distractions aside, the NATO agreement is said to benefit Colombia’s armed forces by allowing for the exchange of classified information with the alliance. Such exchanges are reportedly conditioned on an international call for cooperation in human rights, military justice, and military education; in other words, any NATO agreement would have the aim of further professionalizing the Colombian military, especially its crucial middle managers—the non-commissioned officer corps—who lead low-level soldiers in day-to-day activities. If this is indeed the aim of NATO and Colombia’s political and military leaders, it should probably be regarded as noble by Colombians and regional democracies alike.

The ongoing drug war aside, the next few years look prosperous for Colombia’s citizens. A growing middle class, vast improvements in infrastructure, peace talks with the FARC, and increasing foreign investment provide the foundation for cautious optimism.

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Near-Term Forecast

➣ Facing re-election in 2014—and despite ongoing peace talks—President Juan Manuel Santos will continue to simultaneously apply public, political, and military pressure on the FARC. The president will steadfastly work to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors, who discontinued military operations during peace negotiations, a strategy that failed when it allowed the FARC critical time to regroup and emerge as a much more lethal and ruthless enemy.

➣ Even if peace talks are successful, Colombians will expect meaningful penalties for the FARC commanders who have waged a brutal and bloody campaign for almost five decades. Should President Santos permit the FARC access to political office in the place of prison or exile, he is sure to be seen by many as appeasing terrorism.

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Long-Term Forecast

➣ Unless unforeseen circumstances regarding the war or highly inept political leadership emerge, the next few years will be quite prosperous for Colombia. The nation will see a constant increase in infrastructure investment, including US$26 billion in road construction and improvements through 2016, as well as significant airport modernizations, port construction, and railway projects.

➣ In addition to domestic spending, Colombians will benefit from the results of planned (and promised) foreign investment for new Hilton and Hyatt hotels and major mass transportation projects throughout the country. If mass transit becomes readily accessible to low income areas, middle class growth may explode and the FARC’s promise to the poor that communism is the perfect social remedy will seem a fundamentally outdated notion.

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