For many FT readers, the guerrilla conflict that Colombia has suffered over the past 50 years, and the possibility that it may now end, probably seems like a sordid tropical war taking place in a corner of the world of little interest, and less importance. It is otherwise. In this corner of the Americas there is, in fact, a great and complex geopolitical game at work, in the same way that there was a great game at work in central Asia in the 19th century.
Only 12 years ago, Colombia was considered an “almost failed” state. That is why the United States – under an initiative begun under President Bill Clinton, and continued under President George W Bush and President Barack Obama – launched “Plan Colombia”: a program of military and development aid that constitutes one of the US’s biggest, and one of its most controversial, foreign policy initiatives. To date, the US has committed some $8bn under this plan, which is designed to combat insurgent guerrilla forces in Colombia and curb drug trafficking.
In many ways, the program has been a success. Colombia is no longer considered a failed state; instead it is now a Wall Street darling. The Farc guerrilla movement, which once threatened to overrun the country, is under abeyance. Drug traffickers, which also once threatened the state, are no longer a systemic threat. (Paradoxically, though, Colombia’s success in fighting drug trafficking has only pushed the problem elsewhere, especially into Mexico and Central America.)
Yet despite its relative successes, one of the problems with “Plan Colombia” has been how to end it. Or, in other words, how to tactfully withdraw US aid from a country that remains Washington’s closest ally in the region? Peace is the only lasting solution. But how to achieve it? Enter those perennial US pariahs, at Colombia’s request, Cuba and Venezuela.
Take Venezuela first, home of the largest oil reserves in the world. For many years, President Hugo Chavez sheltered the Farc and provided its leaders with succour from their persecutors. But now, on the brink of presidential elections at home, Mr Chavez has cajoled and encouraged the Farc to enter the peace process.
The reasons for this are various. Playing the peacemaker will go down well in the October 7 elections. Mr Chavez is suffering from cancer, and may want to do the right thing before he dies. In this age of democracy, Latin American guerilla movements are also passé. Most important of all, perhaps, “fraternal peace” is the kind of thing that his historical hero, Simon Bolivar, would have wanted him to seek.
Whatever the reason, Mr Chavez has played a constructive role in helping foment peace in the region, and that can only be a good thing for everybody.
Now take Cuba. For the past half century, it has been the US’s most persistent foreign policy headache in the region, and one that has poisoned its relations with the rest of Latin America. But now Havana is playing a key role by hosting the Colombian peace process, while also politely but firmly encouraging the Farc to put down their guns. Indeed, one can imagine Fidel Castro, that great patriarch of Latin American revolution, laying his hands on Farc guerrilla leaders and telling them: it’s ok, peace is a kind of revolutionary victory too.
What is in this for Cuba, a country that has always played a long strategic game? Simple. It wants to be seen as playing a constructive regional role in a way that Washington cannot ignore. The fact that in these straightened times Colombian peace, abetted by the Cubans, might also save the US a few hundred millions dollars of aid a year is surely no small thing.
Might that be enough to help end the 50-year embargo, a perennial sticking point in US-Latin American relations? Perhaps. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos has said he’d like to see the embargo end. Washington might also like to see the same, but domestic political opposition has always made that impossible.
So there you can now glimpse the contours of a great regional game. Mr Santos has launched a peace process that could end a conflict that has caused tens of thousands of deaths. That is a boon in its own right, and would also corroborate the success of the US initiative, Plan Colombia – a plus for the US profile in the region.
By launching the peace process, Washington’s closest ally in Latin America, Mr Santos, also grows his regional profile – a plus for him, and also probably the US. At the same time, Cuba is opening a way that makes it easier for whoever is in Washington to relax the embargo – potentially another strategic boost for US regional relations. Venezuela, meanwhile, is helping end a guerrilla-sponsored conflict that contributes to drug smuggling, which in turn creates regional instability. Who can complain about that? Everyone is a winner.
The last kicker, at least for Washington, is that Brazil, the region’s other great competing power, is nowhere to be seen in the process. Poor Brazil.