THE PEACE DIVIDEND

Colombia 2014 | DIPLOMACY | FOCUS: PEACE & ELECTIONS IN COLOMBIA

Election results, renewed peace talks, and economic growth have injected an air of cautious optimism into the ongoing quest to move Colombia into a prosperous future.

Although there remain a number of potential pitfalls along Colombia's road back to peace, there seems to be growing optimism among the main parties in the Colombian peace process as they work through their agendas in Havana, Cuba. These talks are taking place within the context of further economic growth, which is helping the country move forward from its decades-long conflict. The fragile security situation of previous years, based around drug-fueled criminality and terrorism from many different warring factions, has affected almost every sector of the Colombian economy, just as it has touched almost all of its people in one way or another.

When President Santos won in the second round of this year's election with 50.95% of the vote for the Social Party of National Unity (Party of the U) he received a mandate from the voters to continue his previous negotiations with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other warring factions, all of whom remain massively unpopular in national opinion polls. Indeed, President Santos is clear that he wants all sides to move forward together to build Colombia's future. He has stated quite clearly that: “Peace comes not only from the silencing of guns, but is also achieved by sowing seeds on all fronts and at all times: peace in Colombia's interior, peace in the regions, peace in schools, and peace throughout the country." The elections were central to the government's goal of bringing the differing factions back to the negotiating table, and in the long term, will likely be seen as the first step in restoring Colombian prosperity and releasing the country's vast economic potential. The main ruling conservative political parties were in agreement on most issues—although much of the election revolved around their disagreement in principle on negotiations with the FARC—including expanding free markets, protecting property rights, pursuing and supporting a pro-business monetary policy, and investment friendly fiscal policies. They also want to encourage foreign investment and maintain close economic and security ties with the US.

The current peace talks have been described as more tangible, realistic and increasingly optimistic compared with previous attempts at reconciliation; in earlier years the FARC demanded the discussion of radical changes to Colombia's political and economic model, which were not acceptable to mainstream parties and not generally popular with the majority of the electorate. The Santos government and the FARC have recently issued statements saying that progress was being made on one of the main points of contention, namely recognition of, and reparations for, the victims of violence during the years of conflict. The formal agenda for the talks features six major topics for discussion, the first of which has proved to be something of a stumbling point: land reform. There has been some friction between the government and the FARC on the question of agrarian reform, a key issue affecting the rural and agrarian population, especially in regions where the FARC still has some support. However, six months into the talks, on 26 May 2014, negotiators reached an agreement on land reform, which they said would result in a “radical transformation of rural Colombia." There is also some progress on the widening of political participation; dealing with issues related to drug trafficking; addressing the rights of victims from the previous era of violence—this is a recurring demand of the FARC, which President Santos has tried to compromise on the disarmament of the rebels and the actual implementation and enforcement of the peace deal.

Yet across the national political spectrum there is optimism. In 2013 the homicide rate was at 38 per 100,000 inhabitants, which is Colombia's lowest in 35 years. Diminishing violence and robust economic growth, within the context of the peace talks, has helped spur renewed interest and confidence in Colombia. Take the example of Medellín, the country's second largest city, formerly associated most closely with the drugs war, but which in 2013 was named the most innovative city in the world due to its infrastructure and education programs. Mayor Aníbal Gaviria Correa put it concisely when he said that, “Medellín was known internationally as the most dangerous city in the world in the past; however, we have changed that and today the city has become the most innovative and resilient city in the globe." In 2013 Colombia's exports were worth about $58 billion, as foreign investors and domestic entrepreneurs both sought to share in the country's burgeoning economy. The Colombian government has made its agenda for peace clear and it knows that in order to further attract industrial investment from national and foreign investors, it must continue working to increase security levels and push for peace.