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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Can Colombia's Centre Hold?

BelloCan Colombia’s centre hold?

To make peace stick, the government needs to do better

ON MAY 3rd a delegation from the United Nations Security Council arrived in Colombia for a two-day inspection of the implementation of last year’s peace agreement between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC guerrillas. “They are coming because it is the only success story that the UN has in the whole world at the moment,” crowed Mr Santos. That is not how many Colombians see it. A long-standing gap between the upbeat view of outsiders, symbolised in the award of the Nobel peace prize to Mr Santos, and disgruntlement at home has widened to a chasm. With a presidential election scheduled for May 2018, that is worrying.
The discontent starts with the peace agreement itself, which punishes FARC leaders who confess to terrorist crimes with “restrictions on liberty” (but not jail) and grants their new political party ten seats in congress. The accord was narrowly rejected in a plebiscite in October. After some hasty tweaking, the undeterred Mr Santos secured its approval in congress.

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By June 1st the UN is supposed to remove from collection points weapons turned in by 6,500 guerrillas (plus 3,500 associated urban militia members) and the fighters should begin civilian life. But the FARC stalled while they haggled over the specifications for the camps where ex-guerrillas are to live temporarily. The government has been slow to build the 26 camps, many in impossibly remote areas. Sergio Jaramillo, the government’s peace commissioner, insists that the deadline for the removal of personal arms of the rank-and-file will still be met. Destruction of some 900 arms dumps will take longer. And the FARC have passed to the Red Cross only 70 or so of hundreds of child soldiers. All this means that Colombians find it hard to understand why 60 FARC leaders already have a licence to roam the country, popping up at events in universities or at the Bogotá book fair with an arrogant message of political victory.
The peace agreements run to 310 dense pages. Implementing them requires a huge effort of political and bureaucratic co-ordination, ranging from setting up a special “peace tribunal” to approving a new land law and, perhaps, an electoral reform. To be credible, the tribunal must be independent and tough-minded. Securing peace on the ground means maintaining security, strengthening justice, undertaking public works and cracking down on rapidly expanding coca plantations (which supply the drug trade) in former FARC areas.
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Mr Santos, a patrician who lacks the popular touch, has never been loved, notes Fernando Cepeda, a political scientist and former minister. One poll gives him an approval rating of just 16%, making him less popular even than Venezuela’s incompetent tyrant, Nicolás Maduro. He has proved to be a poor manager, with a penchant for creating rival and overlapping fiefs in the executive. Squabbling among officials adds to the sense that the government is not up to managing the aftermath of conflict. The main hope lies with Óscar Naranjo, a former police chief, whom Mr Santos has named as his vice-president with a brief to take charge of this.
Mr Santos has also had bad luck, some of which he helped to create. The fall in the oil price punched a hole in public finances, filled only by unpopular tax rises. The economy is weak; the central bank has cut its forecast for growth this year to 1.8%. Businesses are delaying investment because of political uncertainty. The president has faced unremitting opposition to the peace agreement from Álvaro Uribe, his predecessor. Mr Santos has been hurt by revelations that his campaign received undeclared money from Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction firm notorious for corrupt practices (though so did Mr Uribe’s candidate). The ELN, a smaller guerrilla group, and organised-crime gangs still pose a threat to security.
Delays and problems in implementing the peace deal were inevitable: Colombia is not Switzerland. What makes them dangerous is the political context. By acting together, Colombia’s politicians have transformed a country that was close to being a failed state 20 years ago into one with a potentially bright future. Now the political establishment is discredited and divided. “What kept it together was the guerrillas,” says Mr Cepeda. “The consensus is broken.”
This leaves the election wide open. Unless the national mood improves, a run-off between a far-right uribista and Gustavo Petro, a maverick far-leftist, is possible. Both would pose risks for peace. Mr Santos’s government has a year to persuade Colombians that outsiders are right to hail the peace accord and highlight their country’s progress rather than its problems.

This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline "Can the centre hold?"

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