Colombia

By Gideon Rachman
Two national tragedies struck Brazil late last week. In the city of Belo Horizonte, an overpass collapsed, killing two people. The following day, Brazil played Colombia in the quarter final of the World Cup. Brazil won the match – but Neymar, the team’s star and national posterboy, suffered a back injury that will keep him out of the rest of the tournament.

 

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. 

By Luisa Frey
♦ Spaniards may have less faith in European institutions than before, but no eurosceptic parties have risen in the country, writes the FT’s Tobias Buck.
The higher the fire burns in Middle East, the more the US seems intent on turning away, says FT columnist Philip Stephens.
♦ As part of a soviet-inspired urban plan, superblocks are being built in China. The gated compounds in suburbia have residential towers and houses inside them, but force the new urban middle-class to drive back to the city for services.
Rising anti-semitism is bringing fear to Europe. A third of European Jews are considering emigration because they do not feel safe in their home country, according to The New York Times.
♦ Local newspapers called Wednesday’s breakthrough in peace talks aimed at ending Colombias’s half-century-old guerrilla war “historic”. But many Colombians are sceptical, reports the Global Post
Tens of thousands of middle-class Syrians are trying to get to Europe’s wealthy northern states: “Whether they wind up in Nordic comfort or desperate straits on the fringes of Southern Europe is often a matter of luck”. 

Esther Bintliff

Boston

♦ Overnight, one of the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings was killed during a car chase. Officers have mounted a manhunt to find a man believed to be the other suspects, reports Robert Wright. The FBI has issued photographs of the suspects and details are beginning to emerge about their background. Updates throughout the day on FT.com

Gun control and a captured Senate?

♦ The US Senate on Wednesday voted down two measures that would have imposed tough new rules on who can buy guns. The Guardian reports this morning that all but three of the 45 senators who voted ‘No’ received money from firearms lobbyists.

♦ Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was shot in the head in 2011, lambasted the senators in an Op-Ed for the New York Times. “Senators say they fear the N.R.A. and the gun lobby. But I think that fear must be nothing compared to the fear the first graders in Sandy Hook Elementary School felt as their lives ended in a hail of bullets… These senators made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association, which in the last election cycle spent around $25 million on contributions, lobbying and outside spending.”

Elsewhere

♦ The FT’s Guy Dinmore visited L’Aquila, four years after it was devastated by an earthquake. Reconstruction there has all but ground to a halt, through lack of money and paralysing politics – making the city “the ultimate symbol of Italy’s great stagnation.”

♦ Tom Feiling writes for the new digital magazine, Aeon, about why Colombia’s FARC guerrillas are still resisting the coming peace. “Is it drug money or the romance of revolution that’s to blame?“ 

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. 

These are the pieces that kept us reading today: