The nearly half century of war between the government of Colombia and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) that left over half a million Colombians dead and three million displaced may finally be coming to an end. The two sides are currently holding their eighth round of peace talks under Cuban and Norwegian government auspices. The forces that brought Bogotá and the FARC back to the negotiating table are indicative of some of the geopolitical transformations occurring in Latin America.
Street demonstrations prompting the government to reach a settlement have been occurring for years, calling for political unity and a final resolution of the conflict. The tone of the demonstrations has changed since 2006, from seeking the abolition of the FARC to a focus on political settlement. Six months ago the Colombian government and the FARC recommenced talks following a ten-year hiatus, but in the absence of a cease fire, the conflict on the ground continues, raising question about how the two sides can reach a successful conclusion. Several delicate issues also remain a stumbling-bloc. Should negotiations continue, it is unlikely a peace treaty would be reached this year, but in time prospects for an eventual settlement are reasonably good.
While many Colombians seek prosecution of FARC rebels who committed crimes against civilians, the FARC has only committed to "review" any "error" that it has made in the course of the conflict. While a step in the right direction, this will likely not go far enough for Bogotá. Santos' predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, and his supporters, have accused the administration of offering the FARC exemption from any punishment if the rebels disarm. Santos will probably seek reelection in 2014 and must find a balance between making enough concessions to keep conflict resolution alive without losing too much support from the Colombians seeking prosecution of FARC rebels guilty of murder, kidnapping and drug trafficking.
The concentration of land in the hands of a wealthy minority has been a source of tension throughout Colombia's history -- today 52% of Colombian farms are owned by 1% of the nation's landowners. This, and economic inequality more generally, drove the FARC to take up arms against the Colombian state 49 years ago. Land redistribution remains a contentious issue, with the FARC maintaining that the government should hand over approximately 50 million acres of land to poor Colombians and impose limits on how much property a single landowner may possess. While the Santos administration has stated that it will not seize land from private landowners, it agrees that some redistribution of land is necessary to achieve an enduring peace. Colombia's elite landowning class have naturally staunchly opposed the concessions Santos has already made on this topic, so it is questionable whether he will be able to deliver on that topic.
Santos' effort to end the war must also be analyzed in an international context. Colombia has historically relied on the U.S. for support in its war against the FARC. It now wonders whether America's "pivot to Asia" and military budget realities will come at the expense of the two countries' military partnership. With Hugo Chavez now gone, and with it, presumably, much of Venezuela's alleged support for the FARC, the Colombia/Venezuela rapprochement that began under Santos' presidency has had a chance to blossom. This shifting regional landscape, combined with uncertainty about the duration and strength of military support from the U.S., have been an impetus for both sides to revisit peace talks.
While Bogotá and Caracas' improved relations have not undermined the Colombia/U.S. relationship, the U.S. must view Venezuela's improved ties with Colombia as a geostrategic setback to its larger interests in South America. The fact that Cuba is playing the role of peace maker in the hemisphere's longest enduring war is indicative of an increasingly multipolar world in which Washington's influence is balanced with that of smaller states, whose agendas are not aligned with the U.S., and which now have the ability to influence the course of events. It is significant that this is occurring in a country with such strong ties to the U.S. Havana may as a result become more assertive in the foreign policy realm and spread its influence in some non-traditional ways - rather than simply pounding a socialist drum. This is a reminder of how much times have changed, and that the days when the U.S. calls the shots and drives change in Latin America are long gone.
Given its geostrategic position, sitting at the intersection of Central and South America, and sharing land borders with five Latin American states, Colombia has the potential to utilize its geography to substantial economic and political advantage. The war with the FARC has stood in its way, not only preventing the government from exercising control over all of its territory -- and its vast coal and oil resources -- but from devoting more of its resources to the promotion of its regional interests.
If the two sides can reach an agreement, the government will have its first opportunity in a very long time to more fully address the root causes of the poverty and economic inequality that have kept the country from reaching its full potential. What continues to prevent this from happening is the legacy of nearly fifty years of fighting. Both sides must surely see the benefits of compromise in order to reach a final resolution of this terrible conflict. Perhaps the circumstances are now right to achieve peace.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk advisory firm, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk." Giorgio Cafiero is a research analyst with CRS based in Washington, D.C.