Observations of an ex pat: Colombia on the brink

Tejo is the Colombian version of horse shoes. It is also a reflection of the national psyche.  The target is packed with gunpowder. When it is hit, it explodes with a loud and violent bang.

The game was adapted by the Spanish from a gentler pre-Columbian version. Their conquest was cruel, violent and involved large quantities of gunpowder.  Colombia has followed that route ever since. It is now trying to change.  It will be difficult. It is not impossible.

Its history has been one civil war after another.   In 1948 the murder of reforming presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan sparked off the ten-year La Violencia.

The civil war that cost 200,000 lives also spawned the guerrilla organisation FARC.  Its end in 1958 failed to address the country’s underlying social problems, leaving it ripe for a Castro-inspired guerrilla movement.

FARC needed money. So it developed the cocaine business and dabbled in extortion and kidnapping.  An estimated 250,000 people died between 1958 and 2016. Five million were made homeless.

In 2002 Alvaro Uribe was elected president on a tough anti-FARC ticket.  Uribe made good on his campaign pledges.  President Manuel Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize, but inside Colombia, Uribe is credited with driving the guerrillas to the negotiating table.  He is the most respected and popular politician in Colombia.

Which is why the country remains divided on the peace deal. Uribe opposes it. A key part of the peace deal is an amnesty for most of the FARC guerrillas. This is unacceptable to Uribe and he is determined to use next May’s presidential elections as a second referendum on the peace deal.

There are other problems, prominent among them is geography. Colombia’s topography ranges from towering peaks to dense rainforest and impassable swamps.

Almost everyone travels by plane.  Colombia has fewer railways than Ghana and outside the urban areas the roads are winding, potholed efforts that leave the internal organs battered and bruised.

The result is a boon for the bad guys and a massive brake on economic development.  The drug lords and guerrillas are able to melt into the jungles where they are almost impossible to locate. If they are found it is difficult to move enough security forces fast enough to effectively combat their operations.

The government has a $30 billion plus programme to overcome geographic obstacles. It plans port developments, 12,500 kilometres of roads, 1,600 kilometres of railways, 5,000 kilometres of maritime projects and 31 airport expansions.

Then there are the oligarchies. A dozen or so families own more than half the land and are unlikely to happily relinquish their control. Land reform is a key element in the deal with FARC. It was the oligarchs ‘decision to push the peasants off the land in the name of efficiency that encouraged the establishment and growth of FARC.

Corruption and the drug trade continue to plague.  Coca production is at record levels. A new generation of drug lords have filled the shoes of FARC and the late unlamented Pablo Escobar. They insure their operations by distributing funds to politicians.

Then there are the ELN guerrillas still hiding in the jungles. They are less than a quarter the size of FARC, but could become the nucleus for a revived guerrilla war if the government fails to deliver on its part of the peace deal.

To combat both the drug lords and the ELN the government has increased defence spending to $10.8 billion and sent another 80,000 troops into the jungles.

Colombia has the potential to succeed. It is rich in emeralds, gold, oil and gas. Its climate allows two harvests a year. Foreign investment is pouring into the country in the wake of the peace deal.

If Colombia can succeed then its example will become a beacon of hope for failed states around the world. But if the government puts a step wrong—the country could explode like a game of tejo.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and Campaigns Chair for Wandsworth Lib Dems. His book “America: Made in Britain” was published on 15 October.

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  • Richard Underhill 15th Sep '17 - 10:07am

    Nick Clegg visited Colombia.

  • Ricky Rutledge 15th Sep '17 - 5:53pm

    I do agree with the overall tone of this article but I must take umbrage over a couple of points:

    1. “He (Uribe) is the most respected and popular politician in Colombia.” – here I have no hard evidence to offer, but I would say that Uribe has and is being forced to eat his words (and actions) over a number of historical events and acts, most commonly related to Paramilitary collusion, for which many of his followers/Inner Circle/Family, have been imprisoned/extradited or accused. His Peace Process rantings have become less and less mainstream as the majority want exactly that, peace. Not to say that he is a spent force, but (I would hazard a guess), he’s lost much of his sheen over the last couple/few years.

    “Almost everyone travels by plane. ” – yes that’s true, if by everyone, you mean, everyone with money (or a credit card). The rest of us (yours truly included), which I would say are the vast majority, are left riding Greyhounds on roads which are far from the “winding, potholed efforts” that you allude to (you should try it sometime) – despite the Odebrecht misspending…but that’s another story.

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