juan manuel santos

Is Colombia the “Israel of Latin America”?

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

In a 2013 interview with leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos addressed the comments of late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who had called Colombia “the Israel of Latin America.”

“If somebody called my country the Israel of Latin America, I would be very proud. I admire the Israelis, and I would consider that as a compliment,” Santos said. The two counties do share some similarities. For one, they have both been engaged in decades-long conflicts with rebel groups – mainly the FARC and other paramilitary groups in Colombia, and Hamas and Hezbollah in Israel’s case.

Both Colombia and Israel also invest substantial resources in defense and security. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Colombia spent nearly 12 percent of its government budget on the military in 2013 – roughly $13 billion. Israel spent 13.6 percent of its budget on the military, translating to about $16 billion.

While Colombia is a much larger country than Israel, both in terms of population and geographic size, the size of each nation’s armed forces is also broadly comparable. According to the Latin American Security and Defense Network (RESDAL), Colombia has a total of 268,160 members of its armed forces (228,226 army, 32,056 navy and 7,878 air force.) A 2015 report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies says that Israel has a total of 176,500 active duty troops (133,000 army, 9,500 navy and 34,000 air force) plus an additional 8,000 “paramilitary” troops.

Additionally, both Colombia and Israel are large recipients of U.S. military assistance and arms sales. Data compiled by Security Assistance Monitor show that Colombia received nearly $2 billion in security aid from the U.S. from 2009 to 2014 and purchased more than $2.5 billion in weapons from the country. Israel received $17.3 billion in U.S. security assistance over the same period and purchased more than $11 billion in American weapons.

Security matters have served as the foundation of relations between Colombia and Israel for some time. A formerly secret 2008 cable signed by then-U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield explained that “Colombia’s defense cooperation with Israel cooled during the 1980s and 1990s, when some Israeli mercenaries reportedly helped train paramilitary forces in Colombia,” but “more recently, the [Colombian government] has engaged former Israeli military officials to help provide training and advice in the fight against the FARC and other terrorist groups.”

According to the cable, “Israeli contractors support the [Colombian government] through arms sales, military training, and the provision of strategic military planning and consulting services. The [Colombian government] has also engaged Israeli contractors to train Colombian special forces, particularly related to high value targets (HVTs).” Colombia also “subsequently contracted retired and active duty Israel Defense Force officers with special operations and military intelligence backgrounds to help in this regard. Israeli contractors have also made recommendations to the [Colombian government] on military purchases, joint military operations, and how to restructure Colombia’s intelligence services.”

Brownfield notes that “[t]here are no indications that Colombia’s foreign policy interests are shaped by the country’s Jewish community,” and that “Israel’s economic relations with Colombia remain relatively limited” outside of their defense ties. However, as Santos said upon signing a free-trade agreement with Israel in the summer of 2013, “We are clients of the Israeli industries in defense equipment. So this is an important element of our relations, but it’s not the only one.”

Haaretz explains that the Colombia-Israel relationship extends beyond each country’s domestic security concerns:

Besides being a loyal customer of Israeli defense exports, Colombia is also a partner of Israel in the geopolitical axis against Iran, particularly when it comes to the increasing closeness of its neighbor Venezuela with Tehran…[The late] Argentine…prosecutor Alberto Nisman published a report stating that Iran was building a terrorist network in Latin America, including in Colombia. But Santos contents himself with a declaration that Israel, the United States and Colombia are cooperating in the war on terror. When pressed on whether he knows about any terrorist groups in his country, he says, “I have no concrete data [about Islamic terrorism in Latin America] to say this is happening, but I have heard many stories around this issue and I of course don’t discard them.”

Israel is undoubtedly pleased to have sold some $18 million in military equipment to Colombia in the last two years, and surely welcomes Colombia’s backing in international fora, but the relationship has begun to take on a different character since the Santos government and the FARC rebels began peace negotiations in 2012.

During Israel’s assault on Gaza last summer, the Colombian government, virtually alone in the region, originally condemned “acts of violence and terrorism against Israel,” but later expressed its disapproval of “the military offensive by Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip” and its condolences for “victims of Israel’s retaliatory actions.” Colombia still does not officially recognize Palestinian statehood, but perhaps under pressure from its neighbors, it upgraded the status of its diplomatic presence in Palestine from “special mission” to “diplomatic mission” in December 2014.

There are also some important and growing distinctions between the security problems facing each government and the strategies they are using to address those issues. While Israel’s newly-elected leadership has not expressed a strong willingness to seek a peaceful, negotiated settlement to the conflict there, Colombia’s election last summer was largely seen as an affirmation of the public’s support for the Santos government’s continued commitment to the peace process with the FARC.

While Colombia’s military – like Israel’s – has traditionally been one of the sectors of society most resistant to “negotiating with terrorists,” top commanders of Colombia’s armed forces have recently reiterated their support for the peace process. Considering the existing relationship between Colombia and Israel on matters of security and defense, the Colombian military’s engagement in the peace talks could provide opportunities to build upon that by exchanging lessons derived from the negotiating process and eventual post-conflict settlement with their Israeli counterparts.

The issues faced by each country are highly diverse, but hopefully someday the lessons learned from Colombia’s experience in seeking a peaceful, negotiated solution to one of the world’s longest-running conflicts can serve as an example for Israel and other countries to follow.

U.S. Names Special Envoy to Peace Process with Colombia’s FARC Rebels

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama named Bernie Aronson as a special envoy to the ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC rebel group. The move is perhaps the United States’ strongest signal of its support for the process since it began in 2012.

In a statement announcing Aronson’s appointment, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “After careful consideration, President Obama has come to the conclusion – which I share, needless to say – that first, while significant obstacles remain, a negotiated peace in Colombia is absolutely worth pursuing and absolutely worth assisting if we are able to; and second, as Colombia’s close friend and ally, the United States has a responsibility to do what it can in order to help Colombia to achieve that peace.”

For his part, Arnson said, “Peace can only be made by Colombians themselves. We have no blueprint made in Washington to offer. We will not take a place at the negotiating table, but we can push, prod, cajole, and clarify and help wherever we can. The parties have made substantial progress, but the hard, knotty issues have been left to the end as they usually are. Now the parties must resolve them, because windows for peace, as all of us know, can close without warning, and sometimes they never reopen.”

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos welcomed Aronson’s appointment, saying “We are grateful to President Obama and his government for this new gesture.” The FARC also welcomed Aronson’s appointment and reiterated its commitment to ending the conflict, in addition to thanking the U.S. for its moves toward fulfilling Santos’ December 2014 request for the country to take a “more direct role in the peace process.”

Secretary Kerry praised Aronson for “his well-recognized hard work in helping to resolve the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua.” However, as Mother Jones reported in October 1987, Aronson was among the so-called “Gang of Four” Democratic operatives who “sought to rally the party behind the Nicaraguan rebels” known as the Contras, who were fighting the ruling Sandinista government at the time.

As author Michael Massing wrote, “The four testified in Congress, lobbied the administration, wrote articles, and drafted speeches. They also worked with the contras themselves, seeking almost single-handedly to mold the rebel army.”

Aronson, who went on to become Latin America advisor at Goldman Sachs before starting his own Latin America-focused private equity firm, also served as assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs during the George H.W. Bush administration from 1989 to 1993. While Secretary Kerry praised Arnson for his work in El Salvador, the latter has his critics among foreign policy observers for the role he played in that conflict as well.

Aronson’s new appointment will test his public diplomacy skills. During the ceremony for his appointment Aronson also said, “Now it is time, long past time, for the FARC and hopefully the ELN to demonstrate their courage by renouncing violence forever so Colombians can heal the wounds of war and live in peace with justice under the law.” This was a curious and slightly concerning statement considering the Colombian government itself has confirmed that the indefinite and unilateral ceasefire declared by the FARC has held despite continued offensives by the Colombian military.

The U.S. government has labeled the FARC a “foreign terrorist organization” since 1997. For this reason, the Obama administration’s efforts to support the peace talks will likely face similar attacks as they have in Colombia.  Foreign Policy magazine once described the mantra “the United States doesn’t negotiate with terrorists” as a “constant refrain,” though it is one to which there is not much truth.

The U.S. (and Aronson) must walk the same “fine line” as the Colombian government. What I wrote previously about the Santos administration applies equally to Obama’s; “It must [engage in] the process with the FARC in good faith and frame both concessions and acquisitions in the negotiations in a positive light for the general public, while simultaneously countering alternative narratives about the talks from the FARC and the right-wing opposition.”

In another sign of support for the peace process, U.S. ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker, suggested in a recent media interview that the Obama administration could request an increase in aid funding for Colombia to support post-conflict initiatives in the event of a final peace accord.

Despite the efforts of some right-wing elements to derail or discredit the peace process, it seems to be on fairly firm footing – in both the U.S. and Colombia. While some observers have reservations about Aronson, his appointment nonetheless signals the Obama administration’s firm commitment to helping Santos achieve the “bilateral and indefinite” ceasefire with the rebels that he has called for repeatedly and urgently.

Colombian Government Trying to Buy Support for Peace Talks?

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

Recent revelations about Colombian taxpayers’ money being spent on publicity for the country’s ongoing peace talks with the FARC guerrilla group have raised questions about whether the government is trying to buy support for the slow-moving and controversial negotiations.

According to Latin Correspondent, “David Barguil, the president of the Conservative Party, shared a document on Twitter [last week] that appeared to show a government contract worth 480 million pesos (about US $200,000) awarded to an NGO called Corpovisionarios. The contract was for ‘creating a citizen mobilization that promotes societal support for the conversations being carried out between the government and the FARC in Havana and thus strengthening the faith and willingness of civil society to affirm that peace is a collective construction that applies to everyone.'”

“Right-wing politicians and Uribistas — supporters of hard-line former president Álvaro Uribe, who has been quite vocal in his opposition to the dialogues  — have seized on the document as proof of government corruption in the dialogue process and accused the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos of needing to pay to appear to have popular support,” writes author Natalie Southwick.

Uribe also accused the government of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to a private media company owned by Santos’ nephew for “services for the realization of pedagogical activities that allow the generation of spaces of reflection and regional discussion about building peace in Colombia” as well as hundreds of thousands more for the “transmission of advertising, special mentions and other forms of communication of the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace” to another media company.

Yet Adriaan Alsema at Colombia Reports notes that the vast majority of the government’s spending on public diplomacy is not aimed at promoting the peace process. Additionally, the sums of money spent on media promotion, including those related to the peace negotiations, are relatively tiny compared to the overall revenues of the large media corporations to which they were made. As Alsema writes, “the $1.3 million spent on for example RCN TV is not close to one percent of the approximately $300 million made by the Colombian television giant that year.”

Nevertheless, this will not stop Uribe from claiming, as he has, that the government is trying to buy support for its policies. Whatever one thinks about the ethics of government money going to a media outlet owned by a close relative of the president, it certainly does not appear that the Colombian government needs to pay for public support of the talks.

As I mentioned last week, some 70 percent of Colombian citizens support a peaceful resolution to the conflict with the FARC. Thus, contrary to the suggestions of the Uribistas, the comparatively small amounts of money spent on promoting the peace talks reflect the Santos government’s confidence in public opinion, not its lack thereof.

If the government thought Colombian citizens wanted an all-out military assault on the FARC, it’s not unlikely the government would follow that policy. In fact, that is exactly what Santos did when he served as Defense Minister under then-president Uribe from 2006 to 2009. The campaign crippled the FARC, who have demonstrated a genuine desire to find a peaceful settlement to the fifty-year old conflict.

Having won re-election largely based on his support for the peace talks, Santos does not feel a need to bring the Colombian or international public on board with the talks. Rather, he is concerned with convincing constituencies with opposition to or reservations about the final outcome of the process. And there is some evidence he may be succeeding. Last week a group of retired military servicemen who had previously supported Uribista presidential candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga announced they would put their weight behind the peace process.

This latest twist in a long-running saga may ultimately have little effect on the final outcome of the negotiations, but it nevertheless remains an insightful example of the public diplomacy strategies on display throughout the process.

Colombia: Is War Really More Popular than Peace?

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

In an interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine last spring, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos lamented that his “rivals have been quite effective in sowing the seeds of skepticism around the peace process” that is currently underway between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels. “Waging war is much more popular than negotiating,” Santos said. 

However, according to a recent survey, only 28 percent of Colombians believe that the best solution to the conflict lies in a purely military defeat of the rebels. The rest believe the end of the conflict should come through a negotiated resolution (41 percent) or a unilateral disarmament by the FARC (30 percent). Despite the relative lack of support for the former option, these hard-liners played a prominent role in Colombia’s most recent presidential election, nearly costing the incumbent Juan Manuel Santos a second term in office.

Former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe, along with his right-wing Democratic Center (CD) party colleagues, have been among the most outspoken opponents of the peace process, viewing it as a negotiation with terrorists. In addition, they have long claimed that they are victims of political persecution by the moderate ruling government, and have implied that the peace process is an underhanded effort to bring the far-left FARC members into the mainstream political sphere in order to increase the representation of leftists in congress.

Adding weight to (and at the same time casting doubt upon) their claims is the fact that the former head of the country’s intelligence service under Uribe has been charged with spying on Uribe’s political opponents while he was president, and Uribe himself is being investigated for his connection to a mass murder carried out by paramilitaries in Antioquia in 1997 while he was governor of that state.

However, Uribe has another problem. Almost everybody except he and his cohort support the peace process. The UN, the OAS, the U.S., the pope, and the vast majority of Colombia’s citizens support a definitive end to the half-century old conflict. The major sticking point is not the negotiations themselves, but rather the structure of the final agreement that they could bring about.

Uribe, whose father was killed by the FARC in a botched kidnapping attempt in 1983, has been making his case against the peace talks to the Colombian and international public for years. But despite his status as former head of state, a current senator and one of the country’s most popular political figures – not to mention his 3.5 million Twitter followers – Uribe’s anti-peace message has by all appearances failed to persuade anyone who didn’t already agree with his stance.

As I mentioned in my first post on this blog, “Good policies are easily sold. On the other hand, selling bad policies or ameliorating the damage they cause to diplomatic relations, seems to be the main concern of public diplomacy.”

Uribe’s public diplomacy campaign against the peace negotiations isn’t exactly well-thought out – in fact, it seems to be largely in the service of his own political career and those of his allies – but when compared with the Santos government’s similarly weak and discombobulated messaging about the talks, it points to my earlier conclusion that good policies (like the peace talks) almost sell themselves.

Uribe and a gaggle of CD politicians are currently attempting to travel to the U.S. and meet with American officials to make their case, but if Uribe hopes to derail the peace talks and plunge the country into what President Santos predicted could be “another 20, 30 or 40 years of war,” he’ll have to seriously step up his public diplomacy game at home first.

Weakened FARC Winning the Public Diplomacy War?

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as the FARC, has been listed as a “foreign terrorist organization” by the U.S. State Department since 1997. Many Colombians also refer to the FARC as terrorists, including former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe as well as the country’s armed forces.

However, the guerrilla group has been hit hard by decades of heavy-handed military campaigns by the Colombian state, backed with billions of dollars in U.S. assistance. In 2011, the FARC sued for peace, asking the government to initiate a new process of negotiations to seek a final end to the half-century-old conflict. In 2012, the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos accepted.

The peace talks, which have been ongoing since that time, will enter their 32rd round on February 2. While it is clear that the FARC, the Santos government and the people of Colombia all generally want a peace deal, one of the most fascinating aspects of the process has been the public diplomacy campaigns undertaken by various actors attempting to influence the final outcome.

The Colombian government has had to walk a fine line. It must conduct the process with the FARC in good faith and frame both concessions and acquisitions in the negotiations in a positive light for the general public, while simultaneously countering alternative narratives about the talks from the FARC and the right-wing opposition.

For example, Santos’ predecessor Uribe has been very vocal about his opposition to the peace process. Uribe is a popular figure in Colombia, largely known for the military crackdown that helped cripple the FARC, which was led by then-Defense Minister Santos. Last year, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, Uribe’s former finance minister, ran for president in his former boss’s term-limited stead under the banner of their new political party, the Democratic Center.

While issues like poverty, crime, education and healthcare featured more prominently in voters’ minds than the peace process, the incumbent Santos and challenger Zuluaga ended up in a run-off that focused heavily on the contrast between the two candidates’ position on the peace negotiations.

During the campaign, Zuluaga said that if he were elected, he would demand an unconditional, indefinite and unilateral ceasefire from the FARC before he would continue negotiations as stipulated under the current framework. Santos won the election and was recently able to achieve an indefinite and unilateral ceasefire from the rebels within the established negotiating process, which has held despite continued attacks on FARC positions by the Colombian armed forces.

The FARC have developed a relatively sophisticated public diplomacy apparatus, including Twitter accounts and websites in Spanish and English that issue public statements and help to explain the peace process from their point of view. In a recent press release from the peace delegation, the group – in uncharacteristically plaintive language – pointed to the unilateral ceasefire and nearly begged President Santos to make it bilateral. “It doesn’t cost you anything to reply to the guerrilla with reciprocity and grandeur,” read the communique.

However, as one panelist at a recent forum on the peace process noted, the Colombian government has not done a particularly good job of communicating the progress of the negotiations to the Colombian public. The government makes loud pronouncements about military achievements against the FARC, but has obscured or kept secret most of the details of the talks.

One reason for this could be what the Washington Office on Latin America recently described as a “a concern brewing below the surface of Colombia’s peace process: that a significant sector of the armed forces and its leadership disagrees with the civilian government’s handling of negotiations with the FARC.”

The military is worried that in the event of a final peace deal, “the main security threat facing Colombians will be organized crime. As WOLA notes, “for the most part, [preventing and investigating crimes] are not military roles…the armed forces, and their budget, will shrink in a post-conflict Colombia. This will be so despite plans to increase Colombia’s participation in UN peacekeeping missions, and Defense Minister Pinzón’s promises that the armed forces will play greater roles in development projects and the fight against criminal bands.”

There are many signs that this iteration of Colombia’s struggle for peace with the FARC could finally be successful, but undoubtedly one of the key challenges in the coming months will be the public diplomacy efforts surrounding the talks. The Colombian government recently passed a law that would submit any final peace deal with the FARC to a public referendum that would be held concurrent with the country’s elections.

If the Santos administration hopes to wrap up the negotiations and present a peace deal to the Colombian public by the October municipal elections, it will be important to develop a public diplomacy strategy that can better confront the challenges that have hampered the government’s current plan.

Colombia Officials Continue to Signal Major Changes in Drug Policy

On August 22, in the first of ten drug policy forums to be held around the country, Colombian Justice Minister Yesid Reyes expressed his belief that the nation must find “more efficient” policies than prohibition and imprisonment to deal with drug use. “The evaluation that should be made is how much has imprisonment affected the control of drug use and the answer seems to be that its impact is minimal,” he said…

Read this piece in its entirety at Security Assistance Monitor.

New steps forward in FARC peace process as conflict continues

When Colombians elected President Juan Manuel Santos to a second term on 15 June 2014, many attributed his victory not to the voters who supported him, but to those who opposed his rival, Oscár Iván Zuluaga. In fact, Santos lost the first round of the election process to Zuluaga on 25 May 2014. Surveys indicated relatively low rates of voter participation, signifying apathy and complacency on the part of Santos supporters…

Read this piece in its entirety at Southern Pulse.