How will the FARC-Colombia peace talks impact Latin America?

Ridding Latin America of the FARC could mean a better business climate, reduced tensions between Colombia and its neighbors, and space for the rise of a new left in Colombia.

By , Staff Writer

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    Dutch rebel Tanja Nijmeijer from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia speaks during a press conference with a fellow member of the FARC negotiating team, Ivan Marquez (c. right) and Jesus Santrich (second from right) at the headquarters of the Cuban agency Prensa Latina in Havana last Tuesday.
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If the Colombian government succeeds in reaching a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), it will put to an end one of the longest standing armed conflicts in the world.

Successful talks, the second round of which are set to kick off tomorrow in Havana, would have huge implications for Colombia, which has suffered nearly a half century of civil strife, and be a clear boon to the administration of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. But it would also have wide-reaching consequences for the region as a whole economically, politically, and even in terms of security.

Any agreement would be complicated, and not immediate. But ridding Latin America of the FARC could mean a much better business climate, not just in rural Colombia where the FARC have their stronghold but for the region overall. It could reduce tensions between Colombia and its neighbors, Venezuela and Ecuador. And it could allow a new left to rise in Colombia, which would bolster the trend across the region. Could it even have an impact on crime levels in Mexico and Central America? Some say yes.

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“You would be ending the last internal armed conflict in the region,” says Adam Isacson, a leading expert on security in Colombia at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “That changes the entire climate of how the region is perceived.”

Rallying around Colombia

Latin America has rallied around Colombia as it sets out to reach peace with the FARC, a Marxist rebel group that emerged in 1964. The FARC, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, has waged war for nearly five decades against the state. Later, their fight also targeted fierce paramilitaries that rose to counter the FARC but who are equally responsible for putting civilians in the middle of crossfire. The FARC have been accused of everything from bombings in Bogotá and other cities to high-level kidnappings, including US citizens.

Amid the violence on all sides, tens of thousands have been killed, and some 4 million people have been displaced.

The FARC’s operational strength was dramatically weakened under former hard-line President Ávaro Uribe. Mr. Santos, who served as Mr. Uribe's defense minister and assumed office in 2010, put the idea of ending the conflict at the center of his agenda. This is not the first time peace has been tried in Colombia: Talks have broken down three times before, most recently a decade ago.

The region has rallied around this latest attempt. The talks, which began in secret in Cuba before officially opening in Oslo, will now move back to Cuba. Chile and Venezuela are accompanying the process with representatives.

'Deepening of ties'

Peace would likely attract more investment to Colombia and beyond. But perhaps the country with the most to gain is Venezuela.

In a recent interview on television Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said: "Peace will permit the deepening of ties. Venezuela has everything to gain from peace," according to The Associated Press. "We have a 2,200-kilometer border from point to point, and peace will help strengthen integration projects, economic development, the creation of joint economic zones.... It's the great opportunity for all these projects that sometimes are truncated to reopen for good."

It could also help ease tensions in the region. Both Venezuela and Ecuador have butted heads with Colombia, especially under Uribe. Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez and to a lesser extent Ecuador's Rafael Correa, have both been accused by Colombia of harboring FARC rebels. In 2008, Raúl Reyes, the FARC's No. 2, was killed at his hideout in neighboring Ecuador, bringing widespread rebuke from Ecuador and Venezuela for Colombia’s military incursion into foreign territory.

Bilateral relations have been greatly improved under Santos. Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, says that Santos gambled that without improved relations with Venezuela the FARC would continue to use Venezuelan territory as a refuge. However, by mending  relations, Mr. Chávez, who just won another six-year term, would see peace in Colombia as in his best interest.

“After his rereelection Chávez has a chance to contribute to peace, and in so doing, improve his international image,” says Mr. Shifter.

Both nations are dependent on each other for peace. Elsa Cardozo, a professor of international studies at the Central University of Venezuela, says that for years analysts said peace in Colombia would mean peace in Venezuela. But the opposite is also true: “Without peace in Venezuela,” Ms. Cardozo says, “peace in Colombia is at risk.”

'Easier to deal with other problems'

Peace in Colombia could also mean more peace for other countries in the region as well. The FARC morphed from a peasant organization with Marxist ideals to an organized crime network that deals in the drug trade. "One of the best organized criminal networks and violence-producing networks would be out of the picture in the region. I am inclined to think that of course it would have a beneficial effect [on the region]," says Mr. Isacson.

Though a peace deal with the FARC will reduce violence in the region, it won't necessarily rid Colombia or neighboring countries of all crime, says Isacson. Removing them from the picture will not end the drug trade, for instance. The FARC typically supply coca directly to intermediaries, whether Mexican or Colombian drug traffickers, staying out of the international aspect of the trade. Even if the FARC in name disappears, the rural areas where coca is grown and where the FARC have their fronts would still be dependent on coca money and continue to supply the chain.

Shifter says that with the FARC out of the picture, “it would make it easier to deal with other problems, including poverty or the drug trade, that help fuel widespread insecurity throughout the region."

“True, it is only one factor among many, but it is a critical factor, with huge symbolic significance,” Shifter says.

It could also affect how Colombia leans politically in the future. While leftist politics have emerged across Latin America from the radical left in Venezuela to the moderate left of Brazil, Colombia, the region’s No. 4 economy, has elected solidly right and center-right candidates as president. Part of the reason, says Isacson, is that the right in Colombia has always been quick to link leftist candidates to guerrillas, leaving little space for the left.

“It would create a lot more room for a democratic left, who are quite ascendant elsewhere in Latin America,” says Isacson. “That would add more … credibility to the tendency in the region.”

US-Latin American relations

Meanwhile, US-Latin American relations could also shift with an end to the FARC. US attention on Latin America, since the beginning of this century, has largely revolved around counter-narcotics strategy, first under Plan Colombia and later with the Merida Initiative in Mexico and Central America, where much of the violence of drug trafficking is now centered. US financial support to Colombia has waned as the violence has, but the end of the FARC could permanently change its relationship with Colombia.

It could also change the American relationship with others in the region, perhaps most surprisingly with Cuba. As Andres Oppenheimer, an opinion writer for the Miami Herald, explains, successful talks might mean the US has to remove Cuba from its terrorist nation list.

“Here’s why,” Mr. Oppenheimer writes in a piece dated Sept. 12.

Cuba, which is playing a key mediation role in Colombia’s peace talks, was kept on the U.S. State Department’s annual black list of “sponsors of terrorism” earlier this year – alongside Iran, Sudan, and Syria – mainly because it gives safe haven to FARC rebels and members of the Basque separatist group ETA.

But if Colombia signs a peace treaty with the FARC and the Colombian rebels become a legitimate political party, it will be much harder for the U.S. State Department to justify keeping Cuba on the terrorism list, critics of the US trade embargo on Cuba — Democrats and Republicans — say. You cannot be a sponsor of terrorism if the people you are accused of harboring are no longer terrorists, they argue.

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