Colombia

It was a fateful moment in Colombia’s long and troubled history of drug-fueled violence. On July 2 1994 Andrés Escobar, captain of the national football team, was shot six times in the chest in the parking lot of a bar in Medellín.

The killing was supposedly retribution for Escobar scoring an own goal days earlier, which hastened the team’s departure from the World Cup in the US. As a historian friend says, there was always a lame excuse to kill someone in Colombia in those days. 

John Paul Rathbone

Such is the power of incumbency, that over the past decade no Latin American president who has run for re-election has lost. Juan Manuel Santos, re-elected Colombia’s president on Sunday, has just re-confirmed that trend, although it was close. (An aside:Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, who are also aiming for re-election this year, will be relieved.)

The clinchers for Santos, who won with 51 per cent of the vote in a presidential run-off against Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, who took 45 per cent, were threefold. All of them have implications for Santos’ next term. 

 

Colombian soccer team fans sleep on Copacabana beach while waiting for the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup (Getty)

Colombians will elect a president on Sunday in an election widely seen as a plebiscite on talks with Farc rebels that could end a five-decades guerrilla insurgency.

But polls are so tight that they have failed to predict a clear winner between centrist President Juan Manuel Santos and conservative candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who won the first round. Some believe it will take something momentous to produce a runaway winner. Like football.

Colombians are among the world’s biggest football fans, and they will either be cheering or sobbing as they head to vote after the country’s first World Cup match the day before against Greece, its first Cup match in 16 years. 

At a recent show at the British Library in London showcasing pre-Columbian gold, a Colombian diplomat noted that his countrymen were “very concerned about their image and public relations.”

Until a decade ago, Colombia was mostly associated with guerrillas and drug kingpins such as Pablo Escobar. All of that has changed.

But the country still suffers from a public relations failure at the local level. As Colombia’s image abroad continues to improve, thanks in large part to the main players in the current election campaign, the view Colombians have of their own nation is growing ever more negative, partly because of those same men. 

John Paul Rathbone

The optimism of the early Chávez years is fading (Getty)

Landing in Maiquetia, Venezuela’s main international airport, is always a bit like stepping through the looking glass no matter where you’re coming from. But arriving from neighbouring Colombia is a stark reminder of just how far the fortunes of these two countries have diverged over the past 15 years or so.

At the turn of the century, Colombia was under the cosh – from the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, drug traffickers, often all at the same time. Bogotá was an austere, gloomy place. The only way seemed to be down. Today, its refurbished El Dorado airport is all gleaming efficiency – perhaps the slickest entrepôt on the continent. The capital’s streets are thrumming, the Colombian personality remains upbeat and can-do, democracy is effervescent (and bumpy, like all healthy democracies), inflation is low, and while the country’s peace talks with the Farc guerrillas is sometimes a halting process, government security officials have a spring in their step. I suspect the talks are going far better than many believe and a deal could be possible in a number of months. Peace could then see the economy really take off and the country properly attack its glaring inequalities and income disparities.

In Venezuela everything is al reves – the opposite. 

John Paul Rathbone

They say that a bad agreement is better than a good fight. But not, it seems, in Bogotá. Last September, President Juan Manuel Santos launched a formal peace process with Colombia’s Farc guerrillas. This sparked hopes that the hemisphere’s longest internal armed conflict might finally draw to a close. As the Farc has also funded itself with drug-smuggling (although it denies this), the process has other international implications too. The talks, held in Havana, have already proved a hard slog. But over the Easter holidays, they suffered a series of unexpected and damaging attacks – not from the guerrillas themselves, as you might expect, but from two former Colombian presidents.

Álvaro Uribe, who led an all out offensive on the Farc while president from 2002 until 2010, fired off a series of withering tweets, lambasting the peace process as an attempt to “cozy up to terrorists”. Then Andrés Pastrana, who ironically led a failed peace process in 1998, joined the fray, saying that Mr Santos had no mandate to seek peace. Further souring the mood, both former presidents attacked the person and family of Mr Santos. To outsiders, this can look odd as he served with a distinction in both Pastrana’s government (as finance minister) and Uribe’s (as defence minister). Either way, the attacks have fed growing pessimism that the peace talks will succeed. Many Colombians were anyway sceptical at the outset. 

John Paul Rathbone

FARC commander Mauricio Jaramillo, is flanked by FARC rebels Ricardo Tellez (left) and Andres Paris, during a press conference in Havana, Cuba, on Sept. 4. Photo AP

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.