Tag Archives: colombia

Santos prepares for Oct. 2 referendum on Colombia’s FARC peace deal

(Adalberto Roque / AFP / Getty Images)
Cuban president Raúl Castro looked on yesterday as Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and FARC commander Timoleón Jiménez shook hands. (Adalberto Roque / AFP / Getty Images)

As expected, after years of negotiation, Colombia finally has a peace deal with a group of Marxist guerrillas that have been waging war against the central government for over a half-century. Colombia Flag Icon

In Havana on Wednesday, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and leftist guerrilla commander Timoleón Jiménez came to a final understanding on a peace deal that could, at long last, end the insurrection of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), following a four-year process that began in Oslo in 2012, that dominated the 2014 general election and promises to cast a long shadow on upcoming elections in 2018. A ceasefire is set to take effect next Monday.

The deal hopes to end over 50 years of violent conflict between the Colombian state (and often, right-wing paramilitary forces) and FARC, closing a chapter of brutality that stretches back to the 1948 assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a popular presidential candidate, the Bogotazo riots the followed, the ensuing decade of ’La Violencia’ and Colombia’s descent into cartel-fueled drug conflict in the 1980s and 1990s.

Next, however, the Santos government has to win a national referendum on the deal to be held on October 2.

The headlines are congratulatory now, but it’s not going to be an easy campaign to win.

In addition, the ‘Yes’ side must constitute at least 13% of all voters, adding a secondary threshold. So if turnout isn’t high enough, the referendum will not pass. Even if it does win, however, the vote alone will not necessarily secure the peace deal’s future, and it will take years (and likely millions in funding) to normalize peace in Colombia. That includes securing 7,000 rebel guerrillas who have preliminary agreed to disarm. Moreover, the deal also includes a late-breaking and controversial provision that guarantees at least 10 seats in the Colombian congress to a FARC-affiliated political movement through at least the year 2026.

The Colombian government’s position has always been that any peace agreement should be ratified by voters in a special referendum; FARC leaders instead preferred a special constituent assembly. The next five weeks across Colombia will show why they’ve been so tenacious about subjecting the peace deal to a popular vote. There’s no doubt that Santos wants to call the vote relatively quickly to prevent an even longer campaign to discredit his administration’s efforts. First, though, the Santos administration must make public the exact terms of the deal, and it must formally win an internal FARC vote. Every little detail of the deal’s terms and conditions will be potential fodder for derailing it.

As anxious, pro-European Brits might warn, not every issue should necessarily be subject to popular referendum. That’s especially true in a representative democracy, where voters elect professional politicians to make, change and enact laws. That’s especially true in cases where a minority can take away rights from a majority — whether it’s the economic rights that come with EU membership or basic marriage equality for gay men and women. Or, in Colombia’s case, securing special rights and privileges that will induce FARC’s former guerrillas to give up violent conflict in favor of everyday politics.

Moreover, since the moment Santos announced plans to negotiate with FARC, his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, has bitterly opposed him.

As Uribe’s defense secretary, Santos seemed set to follow Uribe’s hard-line, no-compromise course against FARC. Once elected in 2010, however, Santos diverged, drawing Uribe’s ire and a challenge in the form of a new conservative political party, Centro Democrático (CD, Democratic Center), which thrived in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Uribe’s candidate, Óscar Iván Zuluaga won the first round of the presidential election in May 2014 and only lost the runoff by a narrow six point margin a month later (owing his success more for his emphasis on economic growth than for his skepticism about the peace process). The 2014 runoff vote, in which Santos barely won an absolute majority (50.95%) is evidence for the broad notion that majority of Colombians can be mobilized in support of the peace deal.

But Uribe and his allies will stop at nothing to thwart the peace deal at the ballot box. Most Colombians seem well-disposed to the Santos approach, weary to end the chapter of far-left guerrilla rebellion and far-right military reprisals. The deal contains controversial aspects, including the potential amnesty of FARC rebels, and Uribe will be certain to emphasize the most unpopular elements of the deal.

Andres Pastrana, Uribe’s Conservative predecessor as president, also tried to effect peace negotiations with the FARC, but like Uribe, he opposes the current deal, this week calling it a ‘coup d’etat against justice.’ Both Uribe and Pastrana will argue that a rejection at the ballot box will make possible renegotiation and, potentially, a tougher deal for FARC rebels. But it’s hard enough to know whether FARC guerrillas will universally accept the terms of the current deal, let alone negotiate in good faith after rejection by voters.

WIthout uribismo, the Colombian government would never have been in such a great negotiating position, it’s true. Uribe’s controversial military (and US-backed) approach essentially defeated FARC as a serious threat and challenge to the government. Though Uribe faces accusations of human rights abuses, today’s peace talks directly result from his government’s victories over FARC.

A peace deal with the FARC is the chief policy achievement of Colombia's two-term president Juan Manuel Santos. (Facebook)
A peace deal with the FARC would be the chief policy achievement of Colombia’s two-term president Juan Manuel Santos. (Facebook)

If Santos wins the referendum and signs the peace deal, it will be the most important policy achievement of his two-term presidency. But, with less than two years to go, Santos is massively unpopular as Colombians blame him for a struggling economy and a much devalued peso. Earlier this year, Santos lost the support of the largest party in his coalition, the Partido Liberal Colombiano (PLC, Colombian Liberal Party), and several figures from within the wider pro-Santos camp are already competing for the 2018 elections. Zuluaga, who may run again in 2018, will obviously campaign vigorously against the peace deal. But even Santos’s own vice president, Germán Vargas Lleras, the leader of the liberal, center-right Cambio Radical (Radical Change), and one of several leading 2018 contenders, has backed away from the peace process. Polls generally give the pro-deal camp a narrow lead, but not by much.

Other popular 2018 contenders less politically close to Santos will be in the pro-deal camp. Sergio Fajardo, a former Medellín mayor and governor of Antioquia, is likely to run as the candidate of the Partido Verde (Green Party). So might the left-wing Gustavo Petro, a former Bogotá mayor and M-19 guerrilla. Uribista allies tried to remove Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla, as Bogotá mayor (traditionally, the second-most important elected post in Colombia) in 2013 and 2014, ostensibly over the issue of garbage removal. It took a ruling from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to reinstate Petro as mayor.

Petro’s example — the M-19 disarmed years ago and never represented the same level is that as FARC — shows just how radioactive, for both sides, the amnesty and political participation aspects of a peace deal could be. Notwithstanding Santos’s promises, a significant portion of the Colombian political elite will be incredibly wary of the possibility that former left-wing rebels could one day gain power through the political process. The 2018 elections, ultimately, will represent a second-run referendum on the peace deal. Even a vote for peace in October, therefore, doesn’t guarantee the peace process’s ultimate success.

No, Bernie wasn’t right about Panama — and offshore havens have little to do with trade

Even before a bilateral free trade deal with the United States, Panama City was thriving as a center of commerce, banking and shipping in the Caribbean. (Kevin Lees)
Even before a bilateral free trade deal with the United States, Panama City was thriving as a center of commerce, banking and shipping in the Caribbean. (Kevin Lees)

During Barack Obama’s presidential administration, the United States entered into bilateral free trade agreements with not only Panama, but Colombia and South Korea as well.USflagPanama Flag Icon

It might surprise Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, but that didn’t transform Colombia and South Korea offshore tax havens.

Panama, like the British Virgin Islands or a handful of well-known jurisdictions (including Delaware), was known as a top offshore destination for foreign assets well before 2012, when the U.S.-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement took effect. Today, in the aftermath of the jaw-dropping leak of the ‘Panama Papers,’ a 2011 video clip of Sanders, the insurgent candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, is now going viral.

But it’s far from evidence that Sanders was somehow prescient, and the suggestion that the U.S.-Panama free trade agreement somehow led to Panama’s reputation as a tax haven is disingenuous.

The truth is that offshore jurisdictions have been under siege for years, and the United States has been at the forefront of that fight. It began in earnest in the 1990s, a result of efforts to stymie money laundering related to drug trafficking. But it accelerated to warp speed after the 2001 terrorist attacks in response to concerns about the intricate networks that financed terrorism. Both before and after the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2008-2009, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development took steps to force many of the worst global offenders, named and shamed on its ‘blacklist’ and ‘graylist’ of violators, to weaken their bank secrecy regimes.

That included, perhaps most notably, Switzerland, once the gold standard of secret bank accounts, which agreed to relent its famous standards of bank secrecy in 2009 and 2010. For the record, neither Panama nor the United States signed a more recent effort from 2014 to introduce greater tax transparency. Yet, under the Obama administration, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) has put unprecedented burdens on foreign financial institutions in the effort to root out American tax cheats.

Despite the easy meme about Sanders, the U.S.-Panama free trade agreement was always about free trade.

Continue reading No, Bernie wasn’t right about Panama — and offshore havens have little to do with trade

Mask slips on potential Rendón dirty tricks across Latin America

J.J. Rendón is the most well-known political strategist in Latin America. (El País / Colprensa)
J.J. Rendón is the most well-known political strategist in Latin America. (El País / Colprensa)

If you haven’t had a chance yet, you should drop everything to read the amazing 4500-word-plus scoop from Bloomberg about the potentially criminal role of hacking in the political universe of J.J. Rendón and his still-unclear ties to Andrés Sepúlveda, a Colombian hacker now serving a decade-long prison sentence for hacking, espionage and other crimes related to the 2014 Colombian election.Mexico Flag IconColombia Flag Icon

Even if you take Sepúlveda’s accusations with a fair share of skepticism, that he’s sitting in jail and subject to such heavy security from the Colombian government lends at least some credence — and the chicanery in that 2014 election is only one example in a story that looks and feels like it was ripped right out of the latest season of House of Cards:

He says he wants to tell his story because the public doesn’t grasp the power hackers exert over modern elections or the specialized skills needed to stop them. “I worked with presidents, public figures with great power, and did many things with absolutely no regrets because I did it with full conviction and under a clear objective, to end dictatorship and socialist governments in Latin America,” he says. “I have always said that there are two types of politics—what people see and what really makes things happen. I worked in politics that are not seen.”

The very mention of Rendón’s name can strike fear into the heart of an opponent in any Latin American election. He’s been called the ‘Karl Rove’ of Latin America and, it’s true, he’s helped dozens of center-right candidates win office. He helped boost Juan Manuel Santos, both when he was minister of defense in Colombia, and in the 2010 election, in which Santos won the presidency.

In 2014, however, after Santos launched landmark peace talks with FARC and Santos’s one-time mentor, former president Álvaro Uribe, turned on Santos, Sepúlveda found himself working for a right-wing opponent Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who wanted to end the peace talks. Though Zuluaga narrowly won the first round, Santos triumphed in the runoff, and the talks have deepened and progressed in Santos’s second term. (Rendón was working for Santos, though he resigned after accusations linking him financially to drug cartels.)

It’s not just Colombia, though. Continue reading Mask slips on potential Rendón dirty tricks across Latin America

16 in 2016: Sixteen global elections to watch in 2016

(123rf.com)
(123rf.com)

Of the most important elections in 2015, it’s a safe bet to argue that three of them took place in Greece: the January parliamentary elections, one insane roller-coaster of a referendum in July and another snap parliamentary vote again in September.

So what is the world to do in 2016, when no one expects Greeks to return to the polls? (Though, Athens being Athens, it’s impossible to rule the possibility out.)

Fear not. The new year will bring with it a fresh schedule of exciting elections on all seven continents, including in the United States, which after a marathon pair of primary campaigns, will finally choose the country’s 45th president in November 2016.

But following American politics only begins to scratch the surface.

At least two world leaders in 2016 will put ballot questions to voters  that could make or break their careers (and legacies).

New governments could emerge from elections in Taiwan, the Philippines, Morocco, Georgia, Peru, Jamaica, Ghana, Zambia and Australia.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy will either advance or flame out in his bid for a French political comeback in 2016.

Semi-autocratic leaders in Russia, Uganda, Congo and Vietnam will seek endorsements from their voters while hoping that the veneer of elections doesn’t unleash popular protest.

An opaque series of votes in Iran could determine the country’s future Supreme Leader.

A mayoral election in London (and regional elections outside England) could reshuffle British politics with an even more important vote on the horizon in 2017.

One very special election could change the international agenda of world peace and global security altogether.

Without further ado, here is Suffragio‘s guide to the top 16 elections to watch in 2016. After a short break in the new year, your attention should turn to the South China Sea… Continue reading 16 in 2016: Sixteen global elections to watch in 2016

After 14 years, Peñalosa returns as mayor of Bogotá

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After a disappointing fifth-place finish in last year’s presidential election, former Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa has made a staggering political comeback, winning a new term as the mayor of Colombia’s capital 14 years after first serving in the office.Colombia Flag Icon

Peñalosa was widely expected to win the race, the most high-profile in a series of local elections across Colombia on October 25, which come at a crucial point in ongoing negotiations between the government of president Juan Manuel Santos and the guerrilla Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

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Peñalosa, formerly a member of Colombia’s moderate/liberal Partido Verde (Green Party), ran as an independent campaign in the current Bogotá race, though he did so with the support of a minor center-right party, Cambio Radical (Radical Change). Despite his ties to the Greens, Peñalosa has always been a relatively business-friendly figure in Colombian politics with both economically and socially liberal policy positions. In his first stint as mayor, he introduced TransMilenio, the city’s rapid transit bus system.

Despite his past electoral failures, Peñalosa’s victory gives him access to a position that’s more powerful than any other in Colombia (with the exception of the presidency). He should now be seen a serious potential contender for the Colombian presidency in 2018, when term limits will force Santos to step down after two terms in office.  Continue reading After 14 years, Peñalosa returns as mayor of Bogotá

Latin America should stop worrying (about term limits) and start to love incumbency

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My latest for Americas Quarterly argues that the hand-wringing over the advantages of incumbency in Latin America is overwrought, and that term limits may actually hinder the development of sustained policy gains.brazil

In particular, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff each won their respective presidential contests since June. But two of those three elections were incredibly competitive:

Incumbent victories in Brazil and Colombia, the two largest economies of South America today, are also much more fragile than they appear. Rousseff only narrowly defeated challenger Aécio Neves, and her margin of victory was the smallest of any presidential election since the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1985.

Santos actually lost Colombia’s first-round vote in May to the more conservative Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who had threatened to shut down talks between the Santos government and the leftist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) that have destabilized the country for a half-century. More notably, the country’s March parliamentary elections transformed the Colombian Congress from a rubber-stamp chamber into a much stronger check on presidential power.

In both countries, democratic competition is on the rise. Even in countries lacking truly fair elections, such as in Venezuela, Henrique Capriles nearly defeated President Nicolás Maduro in April 2013, despite the widespread institutional advantages from which Maduro benefitted after over a decade of chavismo.

 

Read it all here.

Will Marina Silva be squeezed out of the Brazilian runoff?

nevesdilmaPhoto credit to Miguel Schincariol, AFP/File.

On the Friday before Brazil’s first-round general election, the biggest story is that the runoff that everyone expected — a showdown between incumbent president Dilma Rousseff and former environmental minister and presidential candidate Marina Silva — may not actually happen.brazil

It’s a stunning turn of events. Silva, the candidate of the Partido Socialista Brasileiro (PSB, Brazilian Socialist Party), is still the favorite to advance to a runoff against Rousseff, the candidate of the governing Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers Party), which has led Brazil since the 2002 election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

But it’s going to be a lot closer than anyone thought for the past six weeks, while Silva benefited from the sympathy of being the candidate to replace her late running mate, former Pernambuco governor Eduardo Campos, who died in a plane crash on August 13.

Can anyone guarantee, 48 hours out from election day, what will happen?

In a word, no.

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RELATED: In Depth — Brazil

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The latest Datafolha poll, taken between October 1 and 2, shows Rousseff, the candidate of the governing  with 40% of the vote to just 24% for Silva, and 21% for Aécio Neves (pictured above with Rouseff). When all undecided voters are allocated or eliminated, Rousseff wins 47% of the vote — just short of a stunning outright victory on Sunday. Rousseff would win a runoff against Silva by a margin of 48% to 41%.

Neves, a senator and the former governor of Minas Gerais, the candidate of the center-right Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB, Brazilian Social Democracy Party), could actually pip Silva to the runoff.

It’s not likely, but it’s a much more possible outcome than anyone believed even earlier this week.  Continue reading Will Marina Silva be squeezed out of the Brazilian runoff?

Rousseff holds weak lead as reelection challenge looms in Brazil

lularousseff

It’s still Lula’s Brazil. And it’s perhaps easier to think that Brazil’s October election is less a referendum on president Dilma Rousseff’s reelection, and more the challenge of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers Party) to win a fourth term in the presidential palace at Planalto.brazil

If Rousseff, as polls currently predict, wins a second term, the Workers Party will have governed Brazil from 2003 until at least 2019 — nearly half of the period since the fall of Brazil’s last military regime in 1985.

But polls can be also misleading, and they can easily change over the course the next 65 days until Brazilians vote.

Just ask Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, who watched a wide double-digit lead evaporate between March and May, when he narrowly lost the first round of Colombia’s presidential election to the more conservative candidate, former finance minister Óscar Iván Zuluaga. Though Santos ultimately defeated Zuluaga in the runoff two weeks later on June 14, it was an incredible scare for the incumbent — and it could have tanked the Colombian government’s historic peace accords with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

The stakes of Brazil’s general election on October 5 (and runoff, if necessary, on October 26, in the presidential and gubernatorial elections) are no less vital. In addition to the presidency, Brazilian voters will elect all 513 members of the Câmara dos Deputados (Chamber of Deputies), 54 of the 81 Brazilian senators, and the governors of all 26 states and the Distrito Federal.

Brazil remains the largest economy in Latin America, with promising offshore oil exploration, a rising middle class and a dynamic political marketplace. Just two decades ago, the country was rising out of military dictatorship, marked inequality, hyperinflation and economic misery. Rio de Janeiro, the country’s second-most populous city, is set to host the Summer Olympics in 2016, the first South American city to do so.

Nevertheless, Rousseff’s lead is every bit as precarious as Santos’s was in Colombia. In the October 2010 election, Rousseff was forced into a runoff by her more conservative rival José Serra, a former senator and former São Paulo mayor and governor. Though Rousseff ultimately defeated Serra in the second round by a margin of 56.05% to 43.95%, many Brazilians were surprised that Rousseff didn’t win the first-round election outright, as her predecessor, Lula  (pictured above with Rousseff), did in 2006.

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This time around, she’ll face Aécio Neves (pictured above), the candidate of Serra’s center-right Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB, Brazilian Social Democracy Party). Continue reading Rousseff holds weak lead as reelection challenge looms in Brazil

Santos win is very good news for Colombia’s peace accords

santos wins

After a first-round scare, Juan Manuel Santos won reelection to a second four-year term as Colombia’s president Sunday, delivering a narrow defeat to Óscar Iván Zuluaga and, perhaps more significantly, Santos’s one-time mentor and now opponent, former president Álvaro Uribe.Colombia Flag Icon

Though Santos (pictured above) served as Uribe’s defense minister, and won election as president in 2010 with Uribe’s blessing, the former president broke with Santos by opening negotiations with the leftist guerrilla group, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Uribe won support throughout the 2000s from a wide swath of Colombian voters for his aggressive stand against FARC, other guerrilla groups and drug cartels.

Zuluaga, who won the first round of the presidential election over a divided field, indicated that, if elected, he would impose incredibly harsher conditions on the FARC talks — so harsh that they would almost certainly halt the progress of that FARC and the Santos administration have made.

On Sunday, Santos narrowly defeated Zuluaga by a margin of 50.94% to 45.01%. Santos has the support of a coalition of major parties, including the Partido Liberal Colombiano (Colombian Liberal Party) and the Partido Social de Unidad Nacional (Social Party of National Unity, ‘Party of the U’) that once supported Uribe. Zuluaga was supported by Uribe’s newly formed party, Centro Democrático (Democratic Center) and significant segments of the Partido Conservador Colombiano (Colombian Conservative Party), which had backed Uribe and Santos in the past.

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RELATED: Five reasons why Zuluaga is beating Santos in Colombia’s election

RELATED: It’s the economy (not FARC), stupid

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Make no mistake — Santos’s reelection is good news for Colombia, good news for the entire region and good news for the United States, which has devoted significant resources to stabilizing Colombia in the past three decades. If there’s any lesson to be learned from the chaos in Iraq over the past week, it’s that insurgencies ultimately require political, not just military, solutions. Military force can subdue and repress internal dissent, but ending a domestic insurgency demands some form of political engagement.

Santos, throughout the campaign, demonstrated that he understands that in a way Uribe and Zuluaga don’t. Though Santos made his fair share of errors as a first-term president, his victory is cause for optimism that the Colombian government will ultimately reach a political settlement with FARC (even on the same day that Colombian security forces launched a successful operation against FARC on election day).

In the final days of the campaign, there was a sense that Zuluaga might, after all, back down from his hardline stance on the FARC talks, which began in late 2012 — 48 years after FARC’s creation.

But you don’t necessarily have to disavow the sometimes controversial aspects of uribismo to acknowledge that the FARC negotiations are a necessary next step. The Colombian military, first under the Uribe administration, and then under the Santos administration, was vital in bringing FARC to the negotiating table, and the current peace talks are, in many ways, the natural progression of Uribe’s successful efforts to marginalize FARC.

From the outset, the FARC talks were never a repudiation of Uribe’s presidency, but an indicator of Uribe’s success. Nonetheless, it was all too easy to imagine Colombia taking a decade-sized step backward under Zuluaga. For that reason, Santos’s reelection is worth savoring. Continue reading Santos win is very good news for Colombia’s peace accords

In Colombia’s election, it’s the economy (not FARC), stupid

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The second round of Colombia’s presidential election has been billed as a momentous decision between war and peace.Colombia Flag Icon

Juan Manuel Santos, the incumbent, has staked his presidency on the ongoing negotiations with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), a left-wing group founded in 1964 out of the political turmoil that stretches back to the assassination of liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 and ‘La Violencia’ that followed for the next decade. Over the last half-century, FARC has been an impediment to a truly peaceful Colombia, even as the worst days of the drug-fueled violence of outfits like the Calí and Medellin carters have long receded. 

His opponent, Óscar Iván Zuluaga (pictured above, right, with Santos, left), is the protégé of former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe, who broke with Santos over the FARC talks. Santos served as defense minister under Uribe, he won the presidency in 2010 with Uribe’s full support, and he had been expected to continue the same militaristic push against FARC that Uribe had deployed.

When FARC offered up the possibility of peace talks, Santos surprisingly met the offer, and official talks kicked off in October 2012. The talks were designed to reach agreement on five key points — agrarian land reform and agricultural development, political participation for former FARC militants, the mechanics of ceasefire and ending the conflict, staunching the drug trade and creating a truth commission and compensation for the victims of abuses at the hands of government-backed paramilitary groups.

Those talks have reached accords on three of the five areas, most recently on ending drug trafficking — more than two decades after the death of Pablo Escobar and the demise of Colombia’s major cartels, FARC has become a leading conduit for cocaine and other drugs from Colombia and elsewhere in South America northward.

Zuluaga hasn’t exactly said that he’ll end the talks if he’s elected president. But he has indicated he’ll impose conditions as president that FARC leaders seem unlikely to accept, all but ending the best chance in a half-century to negotiate a political solution to the leftist insurgency, which follows a relatively successful Uribe-Santos military effort that has significantly weakened, if not eliminated, FARC. Moreover, Colombians say in polls that they have no sympathy for FARC, and they generally support the talks, in principle at least.

So the election is truly momentous, and the result will almost certainly determine whether the FARC talks will continue.

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RELATED: Zuluaga edges out Santos in first round

RELATED
: Five reasons why Zuluaga is beating Santos
in Colombia’s election

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That’s not the reason, however, that Santos appears to be losing the election, after trailing Zuluaga in the first round on May 25.

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Mary O’Grady, writing for The Wall Street Journal, serves up an analysis of the Colombian election that misses entirely the reason why Santos is in such trouble headed into the June 15 runoff:

A year ago Mr. Santos—part economic liberal, part old-fashioned populist—seemed certain to keep his job. Real gross domestic product expanded by an average annual 4.7% from 2010-13, and in 2011 Colombian debt won investment-grade status from all three major U.S. credit-rating firms.

Had Mr. Santos run on this record he might have won in the first round. Most voters don’t see much difference on economic policy between him and Mr. Zuluaga—the former CEO of a Colombian steel fabricator. But he made the FARC talks the centerpiece of his re-election campaign, which opened his weakest flank.

According to O’Grady (and, to be fair, other commentators), Santos would be winning this election if only he had merely rebuffed FARC’s negotiation entreaties. Most beguiling is the notion that Santos’s chief strength is Colombia’s economy.

It’s not. That’s actually the issue that’s most jeopardized his reelection. He could lose on June 15, not because of the FARC talks, but because he hasn’t offered any solutions to the everyday Colombians who feel like they have lost out in what otherwise looks like a stellar economy.

If Santos loses on Sunday, it will be less because he spent so much time negotiating with Iván Marquéz, the lead FARC negotiator, but because he didn’t take Cesar Pachón, a leading agrarian protester, seriously enough.  Continue reading In Colombia’s election, it’s the economy (not FARC), stupid

Colombia election results: Zuluaga edges out Santos in first round

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Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president, is officially in trouble. Colombia Flag Icon

After the first round of Colombia’s residential vote today, Santos finished around 3.5% behind Óscar Iván Zuluaga, a more hardline conservative backed by former president Álvaro Uribe, whose campaign won increasing support from voters over the past two months.

Here are the results:

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As widely expected prior to today’s voting, Zuluaga and Santos will now advance to a runoff on June 15.

Santos was first elected in 2010, running with Uribe’s support and on his record as defense minister under Uribe. The former president is best known for his militarized campaign against what remained of Colombia’s drug cartels in the 2000s and its leftist guerrillas, notably the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), is now opposing Santos. Though Santos largely helped Uribe carry out his quasi-military campaign against the Marxist FARC, which has been waging an insurgency against the Colombian government since 1964, Santos has opened the most comprehensive and promise peace negotiations with FARC to date.

Santos’s narrow first-round loss may actually bolster his chances in the runoff. Despite Zuluaga’s surge over the past two months, the runoff will almost certainly become a referendum on the FARC negotiations.

Expect the Colombian left to line up behind Santos as a matter of national unity to save the peace talks, including those voters who supported López and Peñalosa in the first round (it’s very difficult to imagine Zuluaga winning over many of their supporters) and, probably, a fair number of Ramírez supporters as well. If you add up the combined support of Santos, López and Peñalosa, it’s over 49% of the first-round vote. Given a choice between continuing the FARC talks or returning to a more militarized, Uribe-style approach, it’s easy to believe that a ‘peace front’ will emerge to bolster Santos on June 15.

So on paper, Santos has the easier route to victory — but that’s only so long as Santos holds onto his first-round base. There’s a chance that Zuluaga, having weakened Santos, could pull soft voters away from Santos if he’s aggressive enough in the next three weeks.

But the last month of the campaign has been characterized by scandal and dirty politics. Hackers with connections to the Zuluaga campaign are accused of illegally obtaining confidential information related to the FARC negotiations, while Santos’s campaign manager, is accused of taking millions in exchange for intervening on behalf of drug dealers trying to avoid extradition to the United States. There’s no way to know whether new revelations might change the dynamic of the race in the next three weeks in unpredictable ways.

Moreover, Zuluaga seems to have outmaneuvered Santos with his strong stand against the FARC, making Santos seem weak in comparison. Meanwhile, Zuluaga has arguably also outmaneuvered Santos on bread-and-butter economic issues. While the economy has grown at a stead pace of between 4% and 5% in the past four years, growth has been uneven, and Zuluaga has fashioned a more populist campaign based on promises of greater social spending and higher employment.

The biggest surprise might be that Enrique Peñalosa, a moderate, anti-corruption candidate, who served as the mayor of Bogotá between 1998 and 2001, finished far behind in fifth place. At one point earlier this spring, Peñalosa had surged into second place, and several polls showed that he would even defeat Santos in a runoff. But as Zuluaga became an increasingly serious contender, Peñalosa’s support collapsed, and even top leaders within the newly formed Alianza Verde (Green Alliance) defected to indicate their support for Santos.

Marta Lucía Ramírez, the candidate of the Partido Conservador Colombiano (Colombian Conservative Party), won just over 15% of the vote, as did Clara López, the candidate of the leftist Polo Democrático Alternativo (Alternative Democratic Pole).

Uribe, who formed a new political party last year, Centro Democrático (Democratic Center), won a seat in the Colombian Senado (Senate) in congressional elections earlier in March.

Santos is backed by a trio of parties, the centrist Partido Liberal Colombiano (the Colombian Liberal Party), the Partido Social de Unidad Nacional (Social Party of National Unity, ‘Party of the U’), and Cambio Radical (Radical Change).

The six world elections taking place this weekend — and why they matter

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I can’t remember a time when there have been so many crucial world elections taking place at such a frenetic pace.

The spring voting blitz began with a five-day period in early April that saw Afghanistan’s presidential election, Indonesia’s legislative elections, the beginning of India’s nine-phase, five-week parliamentary elections, Costa Rica’s presidential runoff and Québec’s provincial elections.

Since then, India’s finished its voting and elected a new government led by Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. Macedonia, Algeria, Iraq, Panama, South Africa, and Malawi have held elections, too, over the past seven weeks.

It all comes to a climax with five elections today — and another election that will take place over two days of voting on Monday and Tuesday.

Here’s a short look at each election — and why it matters to global policy. Continue reading The six world elections taking place this weekend — and why they matter

How the Peñalosa campaign fell apart in Colombia

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On paper, Enrique Peñalosa looks like the best president Colombia might never have.Colombia Flag Icon

As mayor of Bogotá between 1998 and 2001, Peñalosa introduced the widely popular TransMilenio rapid bus system, expanded a sprawling network of bicycle paths, and generally built upon the foundation on the progress established by his predecessor, Antanas Mockus. Together, Mockus and Peñalosa arguably transformed Bogotá into one of the most developed urban spaces in Latin America.

Six weeks ago, Peñalosa seemed to have the momentum in Colombia’s presidential election, building on his reputation as a moderate, non-corrupt public official. Poll after poll showed him vaulting into second place and gaining ground against the incumbent, Juan Manuel Santos. Early in April, polls started showing that he was nearing 20% support and, more incredibly, that voters preferred Peñalosa to Santos in a hypothetical runoff.

That’s all before Óscar Iván Zuluaga, the conservative candidate allied with former president Álvaro Uribe, started gaining traction. With Colombians set to vote on Sunday in what will likely be the first of two rounds of their presidential election, Zuluaga is now tied with Santos, according to polls, and either one could win the June 15 runoff.

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RELATED: Five reasons why Zuluaga is beating Santos
in Colombia’s election

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Meanwhile, Peñalosa has fallen back to single digits in polls. No one gives him much of a chance to advance to a runoff — in contrast to Mockus, who finished second in the 2010 presidential election as the candidate of the Partido Verde Colombiano (Colombian Green Party). In that election, Santos, running with Uribe’s support and on his record as Uribe’s defense minister, easily dispatched Mockus by a margin of 69.1% to 27.5%, given Mockus’s leftist politics.

This time around, many voters otherwise inclined to support Peñalosa have instead lined up behind Santos to block Zuluaga’s election, which would almost certainly torpedo the Santos administration’s current negotiations to bring to an end the 50-year guerrilla insurgency of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Continue reading How the Peñalosa campaign fell apart in Colombia

Five reasons why Zuluaga is beating Santos in Colombia’s election

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Two months ago, Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos,  a former defense minister, who launched the most wide-ranging peace talks with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), looked like a lock for reelection.Colombia Flag Icon

Since late March, however, Santos has flatlined in the polls and his conservative rival, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, has nearly doubled his support — to the point where Santos and Zuluaga are now tied heading into the first round of the presidential election on May 25. Some polls show Zuluaga outpacing Santos in the runoff vote, which will take place on June 15 if, as widely predicted, no candidate wins a 50% majority this weekend.

The race has largely (though not entirely) become a referendum on the FARC peace talks, the most serious attempt by any Colombian government to seek a truce with the guerrilla movement since it began in 1964. Santos has become the ‘peace’ candidate, arguing that the negotiations are making steady progress and that voters should give him a mandate to continue the talks.

Zuluaga and his political mentor, former president Álvaro Uribe, argue that it’s wrong to offer incentives to FARC leaders, railing that they belong in prison, not discussing the possibility of winning seats in Colombia’s Congreso (Congress).

Zuluaga’s election would impose new conditions on the peace negotiations that would almost certainly bring them to an abrupt end, and he would return to the military-style campaigns designed to eradicate and eliminate FARC that were common in the Uribe era. Though Uribe presided over the widespread pacification of Colombia in the mid-2000s, Santos has argued that the FARC has been so weakened that it’s time for negotiations.

Most Colombians long ago lost patience with FARC, which has increasingly turned to drug trafficking to finance its Marxist guerrilla activities, and most Colombians also lost patience with the drug-financed right-wing paramilitary units that sprang up in the 1980s and 1990s in resistance to FARC. Voters seem willing to support Santos’s efforts to normalize relations with FARC if the talks will end the violent standoff for good.

FARC, for its part, seems to be working to bolster Santos’s political standing, declaring a unilateral ceasefire between May 20 and May 28, and working to complete the third of five issues-based agreements this week. The accord addresses controlling trade in illegal drugs. Zuluaga and Uribe argue that it’s unwise to discuss drug policy with FARC, but Santos has argued that this accord in particular could eradicate what’s left of the illegal coca trade in Colombia.

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In an Ipsos poll conducted between March 14 and 16, Santos (pictured above) led with 24% of the vote, while Zuluaga was tied in second place in single digits, along with the candidate of the Alianza Verde (Green Alliance), Enrique Peñalosa, and the candidate of the Polo Democrático Alternativo (Alternative Democratic Pole), Clara López. With 19% of survey participants proclaiming they would cast a blank vote and with another 27% of voters undecided, however, the race was still fluid.

In an Ipsos poll conducted between May 13 and 15, Zuluaga led with 29.5%, with 28.5% for Santos, 10.1% for López, 9.7% for the candidate of the Partido Conservador Colombiano (Colombian Conservative Party), Marta Lucía Ramírez, and just 9.4% for Peñalosa, whose support was rising in late March and April. It’s been a particularly brutal fall for Peñalosa, who was the only candidate throughout the spring who seemed able to defeat Santos in a runoff.

The election campaign has turned nasty this month, with dual scandals implicating both Santos and Zuluaga — and both of them involve the nasty intersection of politics and illegal drugs in Colombian politics.

Two weeks ago, Santos’s campaign manager, J.J. Rendon, a Venezuelan political operative who’s something akin to the Karl Rove of Latin American politics, resigned after he was accused of receiving $12 million for his role in preventing the extradition of a handful of Colombian drug traffickers to the United States. Rendon didn’t deny intervening, but he denied accepting money.

But the more serious scandal broke last week, when Zuluaga and his former campaign manager, Luis Alfonso Hoyos, were shown in video footage allegedly receiving a briefing from a campaign consultant, Andres Sepulveda, on the FARC talks based on illegal surveillance. Though Sepulveda has since been arrested, Zuluaga has argued the video is a fabrication. Although the scandal could ultimately result in criminal charges for Zuluaga, it’s even more damaging as a reminder of the civil liberties abuses of the Uribe era. Nonetheless, the accusations (so far) haven’t seemed to dent Zuluaga’s growing lead.

So what’s going on? What explains Zuluaga’s meteoric rise?

Here are six reasons that explain why Zuluaga is now the slight favorite to become Colombia’s next president. Continue reading Five reasons why Zuluaga is beating Santos in Colombia’s election

ESSAY: How Gabriel García Márquez introduced me to Latin America

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Whenever I go to México City, I marvel at the way its indigenous history integrates into the fabric of the city. Nahuatl words, like ‘Chapultepec,’ meaning grasshopper, and ‘Xochimilco,’ a neighborhood featuring a series of Aztec-created canals, pepper the geography of the city. Those are just two of hundreds of daily reminders rooting Latin America’s largest modern megapolis of 8.9 million in the language and traditions of its pre-Columbian past. It’s where the Virgin of Guadalupe, a young Nahuatl-speaking girl, apparently revealed herself to Juan Diego in 1531 as the Virgin Mary, instructing him to build a church, launching one of the most compelling hybrid religious followings in the New World. Even the inhabitants of the notorious Tepito barrio worship Santa Muerte on the first of November with bright flowers, cacophanous marimba and not a small amount of marijuana, in celebration of the magical chasm between what is, for many Tepito residents, a gritty life and an often grittier death.

It’s the way that México City blends the mysterious and the mundane, matches the sacred with the profane and so blends the line between the indigenous and conquistador that it’s hard to know who conquered what. For all of those reasons, I often think of it as the unofficial capital of realismo magico.

So it’s natural to me that the literary master of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez, made his home in México City for much of the last six decades of his life. It’s also where García Márquez died on April 17 at age 87.

It was his uncanny ability to blend the realistic with the magical that largely won him such adoration worldwide. But what makes the writing of García Márquez and the other authors of the 1960s Latin American Boom so electrifying to me is the way that it blended the literary with the political. Certainly, García Márquez’s writing was about family, about love, about solitude, about power, about loss, about fragility, about all of these universal themes. But his writing also explicated many of the themes that we today associate with Latin America’s culture, identity, history and politics.

His death wasn’t entirely unexpected. García Márquez was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer all the way back in 1999 and by the beginning of the 2010s, he rarely made public appearances anymore due to the grim advance of Alzheimer’s disease. By the time I made it to Latin America for the first time, he was already approaching 80, and I knew I’d have little chance of meeting him.

That’s fine by me, because I always considered him, through his work, my own personal ambassador to Latin America. Over the course of several treks through Latin America, Gabo still accompanied me through his writing — and along the way, he shaped my own framework for how I think about Latin American life.

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(8) Going up the Argentine Andes 2

When I was planning my first trip to Latin America, I brought with me a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I saved the novel for this very occasion, a trek from Buenos Aires to Mendoza and then by bus over the Andes to Santiago. Technically speaking, I was on the wrong end of the continent for García Márquez. I packed some Neruda, some Allende and some Borges — and some Cortázar, too (mea culpa, I still haven’t clawed enough time to read Hopscotch).

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Nevertheless, García Márquez’s words transcended the setting of his native Colombia. Hundred Years, published in 1967, just six years after the Cuban revolution that undeniably marked a turning point in its relationship with the behemoth world power to the north, it came at a time when Latin American identity seemed limitless, and García Márquez mined a new consciousness that wasn’t necessarily Colombian or even South American. So much of the story of Colombia’s development from the colonial era through the present day is also cognizably Bolivian, Chilean, Mexican or Argentinian. After all, García Márquez, already a well-known figure, went on a writing strike when Augusto Pinochet took power in Chile in 1973, ousting the democratically elected Socialist president Salvador Allende, who either committed suicide or was shot on September 11, the day of the coup.

It was an intoxicating read. The sleek brown corduroy blazer I picked up in Buenos Aires with the affected hint of epaulets on the shoulders soon became what I called my ‘Colonel Aureliano’ jacket. Besides, where better to buy a Spanish language copy of his work than El Ateneo, perhaps the most amazing bookstore in the world?

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Hundred Years, of course, came highly recommended from the world that had discovered García Márquez decades before I was even born. It became an instant hit upon publication, catapulting García Márquez’s popularity beyond his more established peers, including México’s Carlos Fuentes and Perú’s Mario Vargas Llosa.

Bill Clinton, in his autobiography My Life, confesses to zoning out of class one day in law school to finish it:  Continue reading ESSAY: How Gabriel García Márquez introduced me to Latin America