Pope Francis to visit Colombia in support of peace process

September 5, 2017 Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , POLITICS , South America

Reuters photo

 

By

Tom Arms

 

Bogota cathedral is draped in scaffolding and closed for spring cleaning. The street vendors are enjoying a brisk trade in t-shirts and the buses are emblazoned with the digital greeting “Bienvenido Papa.”

Yes, Pope Francis is coming to Colombia for a four-day visit to Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena.

The purpose of his visit is clear to all and sundry: To publicly and demonstrably stamp the papal seal of approval on the peace agreement signed by the government and FARC last September.

The agreement needs all the help it can get. It was narrowly defeated in a plebiscite but approved by Congress after cosmetic changes. The country, however, remains hopelessly divided on the merits of the peace deal and its long term future will be put to the test again in next May’s presidential election. It is not yet a done deal.

Leading the fight against the agreement is former President Alvaro Uribe, who, by unanimous consent, is the most popular politician in Colombia. He also hates FARC. They killed his father in 1983 and have tried to assassinate him on several occasions.

Uribe was elected president in 2002 on a tough anti-FARC ticket. He made good on his campaign pledges. He hounded the guerrillas mercilessly, although at times his methods were questionable and accompanied by loud whispers of drug cartel connections and corruption within his cabinet. But Uribe’s relentless military campaign is credited with driving FARC to the Havana negotiating table. Even more so than Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe is regarded within his country as the man who brought peace to Colombia.

However, the former president is opposed to the final result. He fails to understand why FARC guerrillas—who waged a 52-year war against the government, killed an estimated 250,000, displaced up to five million, and financed their operations with extortion, murder, money laundering and a drug trade which brought Colombia to the brink of a failed narco-state—should largely escape punishment for their crimes. He says the deal makes a mockery of the Colombian constitution and the rule of law.

Colombia’s constitutional court has blocked Alvaro Uribe from running for a third presidential term. But his personal popularity has insured him the role of kingmaker which he exercises through the Democratic Centre Party. He created the party as his personal political vehicle. So far Uribe has refused to throw his support behind any specific presidential candidate.

Also uncommitted on the subject of presidential ambitions is Humberto de la Calle. The leading Liberal Party politician is chief standard bearer for the peace agreement and the man most likely to face Uribe’s choice. De la Calle has been ambassador in London and Madrid, interior minister twice and Vice President. But his main claim to fame is heading up the government delegation that hammered out the peace deal with FARC. He is currently tasked with implementing the results of his efforts. His argument is that the deal was the best one possible and opens the door to peace and prosperity.

It is a strong argument. Colombia has already started to turn the corner. Since signing the peace deal murders have dropped six percent, extortion cases are down by 40 percent and kidnappings have decreased by 44 percent.

Colombia remains the world’s largest cocaine producer. This is partly because during negotiations FARC advised their peasant supporters to increase coca plantings in order to cash in on government crop eradication subsidies when the peace deal was signed. FARC has agreed to help crush the drug business as part of the peace deal.

The economy started growing under Uribe and is now trotting along at a healthy three percent a year. Colombia expects to join the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) within the next 12 months.

One of the biggest obstacles to both peace and prosperity in Colombia is geography. The country is the size of France, Spain and Portugal combined, but its impenetrable jungles and rugged Andean Mountains are a boon to guerrillas and drug lords and a block to economic growth.

With FARC out of the way, the government has already started the world’s third largest infrastructure project. Entitled Colombia’s Fourth Generation Concession Plan, or simply 4G. The plan includes 12,500 kilometres of roads, 1,600 kilometres of railways, 5,000 kilometres of river transport, 31 airport expansions and port developments.

The improved infrastructure will open up the country’s interior to increased agriculture, mining and energy operations. It is estimated that 200,000 jobs will be created and the growth rate will climb to over five percent a year.

Reimbursing FARC victims, integrating the guerrillas back into Colombian society and the infrastructure programme will be dear. The government estimates spending $30 billion over the next 15 years. Global Risk Insight, an analyst group at the London School of Economics, says the price tag is likely to be closer to $90 billion.

Of course the country also has to overcome endemic corruption and an entrenched oligarchy that leaves one percent of landowners owning half of all agricultural land while two-thirds of smallholders have less than one percent.

Land reform was one of the key reasons FARC was formed. It is also one of the clauses in the peace agreement. Pope Francis will be urging a speedy and thorough implementation of the agreement to undercut the revenge politics of Alvaro Uribe and maintain the momentum of Havana.

 

 

 

 

Tom Arms

I am a journalist, entrepreneur and historian with extensive experience in print, web and broadcast journalism. I started as a diplomatic correspondent, wrote several books (The Falklands Crisis, World Elections On File and the Encyclopedia of the Cold War), and then in 1987 started my own business (Future Events News Service, www.fensinformation.com) which over 25 years established itself as the world and UK media’s diary. Our strapline was: “We set the world’s news agenda.” I sold FENS in December 2012 but retained the exclusive broadcast rights to all of FENS data. To exploit these rights I set up LookAhead TV which produces unique programmes which “Broadcasts Tomorrow Today” so that viewers can “Plan to Participate.” LookAhead has appeared regularly on Vox Africa, Radio Tatras International, The Conversation and Voice of Africa Radio.

In addition to being a syndicated broadcaster and columnist on global affairs, Tom is also available for speaking engagements and can be contacted on TwitterLinkedin and emailtom.arms@lookaheadnews.com.

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