Colombia’s centre-right government and the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group signed a peace agreement on 26 September to end a half-quarter war that has killed a quarter of a million people an which once took the country to the brink of collapse.
After four years of peace talks in Cuba, President Juan Manuel Santos and rebel leader Timochekno, the nom de guerre for Rodrigo Londono, warmly shook hands on Colombian soil for the first time and signed the accord. Guests at the ceremony, which took place in the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena included United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Cuban President Raul Castro and United States Secretary of State John Kerry. Showing its support for the peace deal, the European Union (EU) on Monday removed the FARC from its list of terrorist groups. Kerry also disclosed that Washington would review whether to take the FARC off its terrorism list, and has pledged US $390 million for Colombia next year to support the peace process. While on Sunday, 2 October, Colombians will vote on whether to ratify the agreement, opinion polls shows that it should pass with ease.
The end of Latin America’s longest-running war will effectively turn the FARC reel group into a political party fighting at the ballot box instead of the battlefield, which they have occupied since 1964. In the worst days of the war, attacks targeted the capital Bogota, which rebels threatened to over run, and battles between the guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug gangs and the army raged in the countryside, parts of which remain sown with landmines. Thousands of civilians were killed in Massacres, particularly in the rural areas of the country, as the warring sides sought to prevent people from collaborating with or supporting enemy forces. The FARC also became a big player in the cocaine trade and at its strongest, it had 20,000 fighters. Now, its some 7,000 fighters must hand over their weapons to the United Nations within 180 days.
Despite widespread relief at the end of the bloodshed and kidnappings of the past fifty-two years, the agreement has caused divisions within the country. Former President Alvaro Uribe and others have voiced anger at the accord, stating that it allows rebels to enter parliament without serving any prison time. In Cartagena on Monday, large billboards urged a “yes” vote in the referendum, while Uribe led hundreds of supporters with umbrellas in the colours of the Colombian flag urging voters to back “no.” Some Colombians are also nervous over how the rebels will integrate back into society. Most however are optimistic that peace will bring more benefits than problems.
In recent years, Colombia has performed better economically than its neighbours and peace should reduce the government’s security spending an din n turn open new areas of the country for mining and oil companies. Challenges however will remain as criminal gangs may attempt to fill the void in rebel-held areas, while landmines hinder development and rural poverty remains a challenge. Analysts believe that President Santos will likely use his political capital to push for tax reforms and other measures in order to compensate for a drop in oil income caused by a fall in energy prices.
On April 10-11 in Panama City, Panama, the Heads of State and Government of the Americas were gathered for the Seventh Summit of the Americas. This year the Summit was especially important as it saw the historic presence of Cuba whose President Raul Castro addressed his counterparts and held face to face talks with Barack Obama, the first Cuban leader to do so since the its expulsion from the Organization of American States in 1962 imposed by the United States.
Regional leaders have widely hailed it as a victory for left-leaning and progressive forces in the region, and particularly Venezuela and Cuba. Several issues were highlighted during the Summit such as Cuban-US relations, energy solutions, climate change, peace in Colombia, Venezuelan-US relations and Argentina’s long-standing claim of sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. During the summit, President Obama met with President Raul Castro and both said that their meeting will help their countries turn the page after decades of important hostility. It is likely that both countries will still have differences but they will advance mutual interests. President Obama said: “What we have both concluded is that we can disagree with a spirit of respect and civility. Over time, it is possible for us to turn the page and develop a new relationship between our two countries.” President Castro has called for the lifting of the US economic blockade on Cuba and the country’s removal from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. However, for the US human right in Cuba and political reform are key issues. President Obama is expected to remove Cuba from the terrorism list in the coming days, which would further demonstrate US’s commitment to improving its ties with Cuba.
However, the much anticipated rapprochement between the US and Cuba was quite upstaged by regional leaders’ rejection of President Obama’s March 9 Executive Order that labelled Venezuela a “national security threat”, which has been condemned by 33 nations and other regional bodies. While positively noting the steps taken by President Obama to re-establish bilateral ties with Cuba, President Castro nonetheless criticized President Obama for his aggressive measures against Venezuela. The US also imposed sanctions on 7 Venezuelan top officials last month it accuses of human rights violations. A potentially tense moment of the Summit was avoided when President Maduro did not follow through on a pre-summit pledge to confront President Obama with 10 million signatures on a petition demanding the removal of the sanctions. Instead, President Maduro said the petitions would be delivered through diplomatic channels. This change of the initial strategy came after a senior US State Department official flew to Caracas to meet with Maduro, and Obama and other top officials walked back language declaring Venezuela’s political and economical instability a threat to US national security.
During the plenary sessions of the Summit, Venezuela was supported by other nations such as the presidents of Latin America’s two most populous and economically powerful nations: Brazil with President Rousseff, who only briefly criticized the US sanctions on Venezuelans as “counterproductive and inefficient”, and Mexico with President Enrique Peña Nieto, who delivered an attack-free address to the assembly. This support from other regional leaders is also characterized by their global desire of a lesser US intervention in the region and especially on political or military aspects. Bolivian President Evo Morales expressed this by saying: “We don’t want more Monroes in our continent, nor more Truman doctrine, nor more Reagan doctrine, nor more Bush doctrine. We don’t want any more presidential decrees nor more executive orders declaring us threats to their country.”
The pressure put on the United States by regional leaders on several matters is escalating and it is highly likely that this will continue in a short- to mid-term period until US intervention in internal matters does not stop. However, both the meetings between the US with Cuba and with Venezuela demonstrated that improvements in their relations are possible and that steps in order to move forward will be taken by all sides. The Summit concluded with a Declaration from President Varela delivered at the end of the event. In his speech, the Panamanian president said he convened the summit “with a universal character” and that the result was a “historic” event, through the presence, for the first time, of Cuba. He then added that “the decision announced by the presidents of Cuba and the United States to move forward with a new approach to the relations between their countries created a legitimate expectation that situations, both old and new, that have made for tense hemispheric relations can be resolved.”
The end of Cuba’s isolation from the global policing fraternity after over a half a decade has opened the doors to a multitude of questions concerning the security of the country, the region, and its relations with the United States. Although not official until codified in legislation and approved by congress, the surprising change of events in December resulted from secret phone calls between U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro. The agreement between the Presidents will, effectively, re-establish relations between the two countries and open the door to an important opportunity for the U.S. to revamp its relationship with the region.
The surprising turn of events contradicts the U.S.’s long-term policy of isolation for Cuba. The instigation of normalization will relax travel, diplomatic, and economic restrictions between the two countries. Further to the agreement between the two leaders, the end of Cuba’s isolation comes with the condition of release of Americans and dissidents from Cuban soil. As a part of the normalization, Cuba will also permit officials from the Red Cross and the United Nations to return to its soil. Not only this, but further to Cuba’s situation, the country’s status as a, “state sponsor of terrorism”, will now come under review from the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry. The removal of such a status will have an impact on the sanctions that continue to be applied to Cuba.
Cuba’s developments with the U.S. come with potential benefits for both countries, the prospect of improving U.S. security in the region being one of them. In so far as to say, the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S. has the potential to arm Cuba with an economic position in the region that will advance the U.S.’s strategic interests and help the U.S. to deal with regional security challenges. Moreover, the policy-shift is likely to expand Cuba’s participation in the regional economy and in doing so, it has the potential to encourage Cuba to collaborate with other countries in the fight against drug trafficking, human trafficking and illegal immigration. However, there is a feasibly volatile side to the situation, as the normalization of relations could see traffickers establish Cuba as a fertile base for transit to Florida and onwards. The potential for such a situation raises some serious questions for the U.S. and the management of such security issues. One must ask if the Cuban law enforcement authorities are prepared a rise in criminal endeavors, resulting from the end of its isolation.
Whilst the ramifications of the official normalization deal between the U.S. and Cuba will follow a congressional approval, all that is certain at this point is that the Obama administration’s policy-shift is one which has not only re-established diplomatic relations between the two countries, it has also fuelled Cuba’s re-integration into the economic, political, and strategic-security realm.