Colombia Update: Ahead of Election Year, FARC Peace Talks, Economy, and Security in View

By Rachel Glickhouse

FARC negotiations, security, and the economy may prove important as President Juan Manuel Santos hints at a run for a second term.

Colombia’s peace talks advanced this week; government negotiators and members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia announced on May 26 in Havana that they reached an agreement on land reform—the first item on the agenda for debate.

The news comes around a week after President Juan Manuel Santos hinted he would run for reelection. At a May 17 press conference, Santos said that Housing Minister Germán Vargas Lleras would step down to head Fundación Bueno Gobierno, which ran Santos’ 2010 presidential campaign. While Santos did not explicitly say he would run for reelection, he explained he wanted to see his government’s policies continue and that he would make a formal announcement in November. Other members of the Bueno Gobierno team include former Ambassador to the U.S. Gabriel Silva, former Foreign Minister María Emma Mejía, and former Central Bank head Juan José Echavarría. Retired General Oscar Naranjo—a peace talk negotiator—will also serve on the team. The presidential election takes place in May 2014.

A number of issues could prove pivotal in a potential reelection bid, including concrete progress in the peace process, citizen security, and the economy.

With Land Reform Accord, Peace Talks Move ahead

On May 26, government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) negotiators announced in a joint statement that they had reached an agreement on land reform—the first of six points of discussion during the talks. With around 25,000 square miles of land stolen or abandoned from 1985 to 2008, the deal was key to moving talks forward. The agreement allows the government to distribute land to small farmers, and to create a land bank through which illegally occupied or underused property can be allocated. Farmers would receive government loans, technical assistance, and police protection. The plan, which will only go into effect after a final peace accord is signed, also encompasses development projects in education, health, infrastructure, and housing. But land reform offers hope for the overall talks, writes La Silla Vacía, because “it seeks significant social change without affecting established legal powers, which makes it more viable.”

Back in Havana, negotiators must also find common ground on political participation for FARC members, a ceasefire and disarmament, drug trafficking, reparations for victims, and implementation of the agreement. A final accord must be approved via popular referendum.

The talks will likely prove important should Santos run for reelection. A May survey found that while a majority of Colombians approve of the peace process, 52 percent believe talks will end without an agreement. Santos set a deadline for November 2013 for the talks to end, though The Los Angeles Times reports that the president could temporarily suspend the talks during his reelection campaign. Political participation for FARC members—the next item negotiators will discuss when they reconvene for the next round of negotiations on June 11—could impact the elections if they gain the right to run for public office. In late May, the FARC denied that it supports a reelection run for Santos, though it would back a candidate in favor of the peace process.

Gauging Perceptions of Citizen Security

Aside from security issues tied to the peace process—such as internally displaced people and guerrilla violence—perceptions of urban citizen security could also be an issue leading up to the election. A 2012 national citizen security survey found that 61 percent of Colombians feel unsafe in their city of residence. In addition, a 2012 poll by Opinión Pública found that 58 percent of Colombians think security has worsened in the last few years. The top two crime problems cited by those surveyed were muggings and cell phone robberies. In December, the Presidential Advisor for Citizen Security Francisco José Lloreda said that crimes like theft and muggings had risen, and that 20 percent of Colombians reported being a victim of these types of robberies last year.

However, several types of violent crimes are down. Data from security watchdog Fundación País Libre found that the first three months of 2013 showed the fewest amount of kidnappings in 11 years. In Bogota, for example, kidnappings for the first quarter of the year fell nearly 94 percent from the same period in 2004. The country’s homicide rate halved from 2002 to 2012. Last year, Bogota’s homicide rate fell to the lowest rate in nearly three decades, and the murder rate in Medellin, the country’s second-biggest city, dropped 25 percent from 2011 to 2012.

Aiming for Growth amid Global Uncertainty

This year, Latin American economies may expand less than previously anticipated, due to uncertainty around the global economy and sluggish growth in developed markets, says an April report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. “The formidable global tailwinds that facilitated robust economic growth and social inclusion in Latin America…over the past decade are receding,” wrote the World Bank last month. Like the rest of the region, Colombia could also be headed for slower growth.

Commodities, for example, have helped boost Colombia’s economy, but falling global commodity prices could have a negative impact. As a result, the value of Colombian exports fell for five months straight, decreasing 20 percent from March 2012. “Annual price volatility across the commodities markets is now higher than it has been at any time in the past century, with the exception of the 1970s for energy prices,” wrote Bernice Lee in the Winter 2013 issue of Americas Quarterly. Some observers caution the Andean country runs the risk of Dutch disease, when a natural resource boom leads to a weaker industrial sector. The OECD issued a March 2013 report commending Colombia for implementing reforms to counteract that possibility, while calling for additional steps, such as implementation of new royalty laws and greater openness to trade.

Employment represents another challenge. In March, the country’s unemployment rate stood at over 10.2 percent, and urban unemployment rose slightly from last year—a symptom of the slowing economy, says Dow Jones. About half of the country’s workers earn their living in the informal sector, according to Colombia’s statistics agency. Around a third of the population lives in poverty, though this rate fell by over 1 percentage point from 2011 to 2012. 

Still, Colombia could well beat the regional average of 3.5 percent growth this year; economists expect GDP to expand by around 4.2 percent in 2013, slightly more than the previous year. Last year, the country received a record $16.6 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI), surpassing FDI flows to Mexico to rank third highest in the Latin America and the Caribbean on that count. The Andean country also saw a reduction in inequality, moving from 0.548 on the Gini index in 2011 to 0.539 in 2012.