The potential regional reverberations of this Sunday’s presidential elections in Colombia – a country that some analysts have termed "the new power in Latin America" – are far-reaching.
While this first round of elections may not determine a clear victor, voter response to the positions of candidates on the issues that have significant regional impact – namely the ongoing armed conflict, the drug trade and its violent exports as well as U.S. involvement in the region – will be revealing.
A poll released by Ipsos-Napoleon Franco, the last to be released before polls open on May 25, gave Oscar Ivan Zuluaga of the right-wing Centro Democratico party a one-point lead over presidential incumbent, Juan Manuel Santos and his center-right Social Party of National Unity.
If the polling figures hold, the second round of voting would see Zuluaga, who polled at 29.5 percent, square-off against Santos, whose 28.5 percent would guarantee him a place in the runoff scheduled for June 15.
Both Santos and Zuluaga have captured a large lead over other candidates. Clara Lopez, a Harvard-trained economist and candidate of the left-wing Democratic Pole (Polo Democratico), placed third in the poll with 10.1 percent.
Former mayor of Bogota and candidate of the centre-left Green Alliance, Enrique Penalosa, polled last among the top candidates at 9.4 percent. Former Defense Minister and candidate of the Conservative Party, Marta Lucia Ramirez, placed just above Penalosa at 9.7 percent.
Many analysts agree that the central issue of these elections has been the ongoing peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The talks, which began in Havana, Cuba, in February 2012, look to negotiate an end to the 50-year conflict which has claimed some 220,000 lives and forced close to five million Colombians from their homes.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that the conflict has caused an additional 394,000 Colombians to flee to neighbouring countries, namely Venezuela to the East and Ecuador to the South.
Santos has made the peace negotiations a centre-piece of his campaign, promising to finalize the talks within the first-year of reelection. “We need to conclude negotiations to end the painful and costly conflict that has bled our nation for over half a century,” Santos urges on his campaign site.
Zuluaga has been a vocal critic of the peace talks, arguing for continued military engagement with Colombia's armed insurgents. “We must weaken and dismantle the terrorist actors through our institutions,” said Zuluaga in an interviews with Brazilian daily, Folha de Sao Paulo. “That means having a motivated Military ready to launch an offensive."
Ramirez, also a former Minister of Defense in Alvaro Uribe's government, has stated as president that she would break-off from the peace talks after four months.
Leftist candidates Penalosa and Lopez both support continued peace talks, with Lopez supporting a bilateral ceasefire.
The FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) announced a unilateral cease-fire from May 20h to 28 so that the elections proceed without “disturbances.”
Venezuela, Ecuador and ALBA
Despite incongruencies with the policies of some of its neighbours, the government of Juan Manuel Santos has departed from the more aggressive positions and actions of his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe.
Trade between Colombia and the neighboring Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to the East surged under Santos following a steep decline under the Uribe government, where economic exchange between the two countries fell from US$7.29 billion to US$1.68 billion.
"I will receive (Santos) in Miraflores. We are very interested in restoring relations with Colombia and not fall into provocation from there nor here. Colombia is a sister nation," said former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, prior to his second meeting with Santos in November of 2011.
Santos also improved relations with Ecuador, following Colombia’s 2008 aerial bombardment inside Ecuadorian territory that killed 20 people including FARC leader Raul Reyes. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa condemned the attacks as a violation of Ecuadorian sovereignty and broke diplomatic relations. Santos, as Colombian Minister of Defense at the time, ordered the attack.
Colombia under Santos has also been an active participant in regional organizations, including Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). Current Colombian Foreign Minister, María Ángela Holguín, has even participated as part of the Unasur delegation participating in the Table of Dialogue between the Venezuelan government and opposition leaders.
In contrast to his perceived participation in regional integration, Santos has also been active in creating the free-market oriented Pacific Alliance, which the Heritage Foundation, a Washington based conservative think-tank described as a ´Role Model´ to counter to the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alternative for Our America (ALBA). This initiative seeks the social, political, and economic integration of Latin American and Caribbean countries on the basis of cooperation and mutual benefit for improved social well-being.
Zuluaga, on the other hand, has been vocal in his hostility towards the Bolivarian Republic and other allied countries. Zuluaga has also characterized Unasur as being under the influence of “Castro-Chavismo.”
A Zuluaga presidency, much like that of his mentor Alvaro Uribe, would likely spell a return to open enmity between Colombia and Venezuela, if not other nations in the region.
While going on record to emphasize the need for mutual respect and non-interference in internal affairs between Colombia and Venezuela, Green Alliance candidate Enrique Penalosa took to social media to criticize the Venezuelan government in the wake of violent protests which began this past February.
Inside Venezuela, Penalosa has been accused of money laundering, tax fraud and tax evasion in a money transfer scandal involving the owner of an opposition-aligned newspaper.
Clara Lopez of the left-wing Democratic Pole (Polo Democratico), has been vocal in her respect for Venezuela's sovereignty, and has also publicly acknowledged and thanked Venezuela for its role in the Colombian peace talks.
Pacific Alliance and Free Trade
It is in the area of trade that the two front-runners, Santos and Zuluaga, have most in common, and where the election results may have least impact.
President Santos has been a strong proponent of free trade agreements, and has been key in the creation of the Pacific Alliance.
Created on April 28, 2011, through the Lima Declaration, the Pacific Alliance seeks to promote economic and political integration through free trade between Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru. The four founding countries have put in place a set of internal trade agreements in addition to bilateral free trade agreements with the U.S., the EU and several Asian countries.
Pacific Alliance members comprise 35 percent of the regional Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Santos described the Alliance as “a process of integration that implies the easing of [restraints on] trade, investment and movement between member nations and a strengthening of global markets.”
The Santos Administration also passed the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement in May 2012.
The Free Trade Agreement opened Colombia for U.S. business. It eliminated 80 percent of tariffs on U.S. goods to Colombia, as well as provided new protections for US investors and copyrights. U.S. service suppliers are given increased access and privilege to Colombian markets. Imports have flooded the country, accounting for 80 por ciento of the Colombian market, putting the Colombian agricultural sector at risk.
Zuluaga, an economist and businessman who was also Uribe´s Finance Minister from 2007-2010, supports the Free Trade Agreement and shares similar economic views to Santos.
Those following Santos and Zuluaga’s lead hold different positions.
Clara Lopez has voiced her opposition to the Pacific Alliance on the basis that reduced tariffs could harm the agricultural sector.
A Colombian Supreme Court decision in April 2014 found a trade agreement of the Pacific Alliance signed in 2013 to be unconstitutional, as it was determined two articles were missing which could negatively affect national agricultural output. The law was never discussed before its passing.
López is also an open critic of the U.S.-Colombian Free Trade Agreement of 2012. “It is not a treaty between equals, when there are subsidies there is no competition,” said Lopez. She has said that she would work to “recover Colombian sovereignty.”
Penalosa confirmed that he would not look to renegotiate the Free Trade Agreement, but has also campaigned on no future free trade deals until “long-term industrial and agricultural strategies” have been set.
US Relations and Military Aid
Long-standing U.S. relations are likely to continue unchanged under the administrations of either Santos or Zuluaga.
The U.S. has been actively involved in Colombia since the late 1990s, when U.S. Military aid to the country increased significantly under "Plan Colombia." Throughout the following decade, U.S. military officials actively trained and financed Colombian counter-insurgency efforts. Former President Alvaro Uribe later confirmed the direct participation of U.S. Military in some operations.
Under President Obama, relations with Colombia have held steady despite a decline in direct military aid. In a meeting with President Obama this past December in Washington, Santos announced plans to triple the military training programs between Colombia and the U.S.
Obama has also praised Santos' efforts to negotiate with the FARC, qualifying these as “brave” and “headed down a good path.”
Zuluaga´s hawkish positions may seem to run counter to the current support from the White House for the peace talks. Relations are unlikely to change under a Zuluaga administration, especially given the strength of institutional ties between militaries of each country and the support that Uribe-backed Zuluaga enjoys from sectors of the Colombian military.
The Colombian Association of Retired Officers of the Armed Forces (ACORE) endorsed Zuluaga in a May statement urging right-wing candidate to "save the Fatherland.”
Since 1999, some 86,405 Colombian Military and Police have received training in U.S. institutions. The United States has also provided US$415 million in aid to Colombia in 2013, including US$260 million in military aid, making it the top recipient of U.S. funds for military purposes in the hemisphere.
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