An ugly environmental law, with U.S.-aided lobbying “Clear and hold”
Dec 312005

On this final day of 2005, here are thirteen things we expect to happen in Colombia in the next year. Most of these predictions are pretty safe, if not obvious. But not all of them. It will be interesting to look back on this post a few months from now to see which of these turned out be dead wrong.

1.      Alvaro Uribe will win re-election in May, but by a surprisingly thin margin. As the 2003 referendum and municipal elections made clear, Uribe’s high standing in the polls doesn’t always carry all the way to the ballot box. Uribe has a few Achilles’ heels: stubbornly high underemployment and poverty; the highly questioned talks with paramilitaries; the sharp recent increase in FARC activity gnawing at his banner security policies. Plus, he faces strong opponents: a unified left, former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus, and a Liberal Party machine that still has some get-out-the-vote capability for its chosen candidate (who, unfortunately, might again be Horacio Serpa, Colombia’s Adlai Stevenson). Expect Uribe to win somewhere around 50 percent of the vote, not the 70-80 percent that his approval ratings might indicate. It’s even possible that Uribe might fail to win a majority in the first round of May’s elections.

2.      The left will gain in March congressional elections. But the paramilitaries will gain more. With increased unity, organizational capability, public financing, and the tug of a Latin America-wide turn to the left, it’s reasonable to expect the Polo Democrático Alternativo, smaller left-of-center parties, and the social-democratic wing of the Liberal Party to gain seats, and to become a powerful minority opposition bloc in Colombia’s Congress. Likely gaining even more seats – often as candidates from traditional and pro-Uribe parties – will be candidates from parts of Colombia under near-total paramilitary domination, especially the north. In many cases, these new legislators will have won without any opposition, thanks to threats against would-be opponents, and with the clear backing of their regions’ warlords. After the 2002 elections, AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso famously told a reporter that the paramilitaries controlled 30 percent of the Congress. Though that number may have been high, it could very plausibly be met or exceeded next March.

3.      The Bush Administration’s 2007 aid request to Congress will look a lot like the past several years’, but there will be no “Plan Colombia 2.” Don’t expect any announcements of ambitious five or six year plans to lavish Colombia with mostly military aid. The deficit is high, Iraq is expensive, Katrina carries a big price tag, and Colombia is getting very little attention in Washington. For now, U.S. assistance will be a year-to-year affair. With the policy on autopilot and Uribe requesting mainly military aid, the 2007 request to Congress will, once again, be something along the lines of $700-750 million in aid, with about $550-600 million of it military. There’s even a modest chance of a slim across-the-board decrease. Do not expect a significant rise in aid for paramilitary demobilizations, which the Bush administration claims to support but did not push hard for in Congress in 2005.

4.      Official measures of 2005 coca-growing, usually released in March, will show some decline, unlike 2004. But much new cultivation will go undetected. The Bush administration was embarrassed to admit last March that record levels of fumigation failed to bring any decrease in Colombian coca-growing in 2004. Next year, expect a triumphant release of estimates of satellite data showing some (probably small) reduction in coca-growing in 2005. This may be possible not because of spraying, but because Colombian Police manual eradication of coca grew by more than ten times in 2005, to over 30,000 hectares. Overall coca/cocaine supplies will barely be affected, however, due to new, undetected planting in other parts of Colombia – deeper into the Amazon and Orinoco basins, the Pacific coast, and Meta and Casanare departments – and increases in Peru and Bolivia.

5.      The first half of 2006 may be the bloodiest six-month period in Colombia so far this decade. 2005 saw more FARC activity than any other year of Álvaro Uribe’s presidency, and it appears to be growing more frequent. During the second half of December, we saw the FARC launch two large-scale attacks on military and police contingents in Chocó and Meta. The pace and scale of such attacks – likely to include some targeting civilians – may be sustained or even increase during the months of the election campaign, as the guerrillas seek to undermine President Uribe’s claims that his security policies have succeeded. Meanwhile, some elements of the paramilitaries are likely to continue the sharp increase in extrajudicial killings, many in violation of a declared cease-fire, that we witnessed in 2005. We may even see a return of paramilitary massacres, such as the one that took place in Curumaní, Cesar, in early December.

6.      Guerrillas will re-take some formerly paramilitary-controlled rural areas. Urban areas will remain in the control of “demobilized” paramilitaries. In some rural zones, guerrillas may fill the “security vacuum” left by demobilizations of paramilitary groups. We are seeing signs that this is happening, for instance, in the countryside of northeastern Colombia’s Catatumbo region and Putumayo in Colombia’s far south. Even in these areas, however, the towns remain under the solid control of paramilitaries – whether active or supposedly demobilized. No matter what, there is little reason to expect that the Colombian government will be able to provide security in most of these zones.

7.      The paramilitaries will not be fully demobilized by mid-February. It is hard to imagine that all remaining AUC members will have lain down their weapons six or seven weeks from now. Too many disagreements remain to be ironed out: the Justice and Peace Law’s operation in practice, the seizure of paramilitary leaders’ assets, the sad shape of programs for ex-combatants, the lack of security in zones where demobilizations are happening, disputes between paramilitary commanders, and of course extradition, among many others. Expect another delay in the process, which will not be helpful to Uribe’s re-election campaign.

8.      “Jorge 40” will replace “Don Berna” as the biggest headache among paramilitary leaders. While Diego Murillo or “Don Berna” occupies a luxurious suite in the Itagüí prison just south of Medellín, he continues to cooperate with the Colombian government in the demobilization of his men. “Berna” also is widely believed to have ordered his followers in Medellín to abstain from committing violent crimes, which may be a big factor in the city’s sharply lower murder rate. “Berna” clearly hopes that government gratitude for his cooperation will result in lenient treatment and non-extradition, and is trying to keep his profile low while appearing to be a nice guy (see his Christmas message on the AUC website). By contrast, another paramilitary leader wanted by U.S. authorities for drug trafficking, Rodrigo Tovar or “Jorge 40,” has been much less interested in the success of the AUC’s negotiations with the government. “Jorge 40,” the powerful head of the AUC’s Northern Bloc, has demobilized few (if any) of his men and has reportedly been the most hostile and uncooperative AUC leader during recent talks. His men are killing civilians as frequently as ever, including this month’s massacre in Curumaní, Cesar.

9.      Programs to reintegrate ex-combatants will be near collapse, if they do not implode entirely. These programs are woefully underfunded. They lack international support because few foreign donors believe that the Justice and Peace law can guarantee that ex-paramilitaries are truly ex-paramilitaries. They lack domestic support, as municipalities have rejected the opening of hostels for former combatants, and as the private sector has not rushed to hire them. The Uribe government’s practice of using ex-fighters as paid informants endangers all of them, since guerrillas and paramilitaries routinely kill anyone whom they believe to be a sapo or snitch. Reintegration programs (in Colombia, they usually use the harsher word “reinsertion”) are already in deep crisis, and no plan to address the situation appears to exist.

10.  No human-rights case will result in the conviction of an officer over the rank of lieutenant. This prediction is based on the past few years’ experience, as trials drag on or never even start. The only thing that can prove it wrong would be a determined State Department effort to enforce human-rights conditions in U.S. foreign aid law.

11.  Colombia’s economy will grow rapidly, but poverty will not decrease significantly, if at all. If you have money to invest in a high-risk emerging market, put it in Colombia’s stock exchange, which has performed very well the past few years. With security better in cities and along main roads, foreign direct investment has increased during the Uribe years as well. Like much of Latin America, Colombia experienced one of its highest GDP growth rates in years in 2005, and most economists expect the same to be the case in 2006. However, if you’re one of the 55-65 percent of Colombians who live in poverty, not only do you not have any money to invest, you’re unlikely to see much of Colombia’s new wealth trickle down to you. While Colombia’s official unemployment rate has decreased somewhat during the Uribe years, the situation is dire for those who lack skills necessary to compete in the global economy. Underemployment – the percentage of workers who do not have full-time jobs in the formal economy, and thus are probably not even earning minimum wage – has actually increased since 2004, from 31.8 to 32.6 percent of the workforce [MSWord format]. Add that to the 10 percent who are unemployed, and over 2 out of 5 Colombians who want a full-time job in the formal economy is unable to find one. And rural areas continue to be hardest-hit. This frustrating combination of macroeconomic growth combined with stubbornly high poverty is visible throughout much of Latin America, including Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, to the great benefit of populist politicians.

12.  Colombia and the United States will sign a free-trade agreement, but 2006 will end without passage in the U.S. Congress. This agreement will not be signed immediately, since U.S. negotiators are taking a tough line and the Colombian government expects (a) better treatment, given its close relationship with Washington, and (b) more concessions to avoid shocks to the rural sector, in order to prevent increased coca and opium-poppy growing. But it will probably be signed sometime in 2006. However, the U.S. Congress will not act: 2006 is a legislative election year, and free-trade treaties are not usually popular with U.S. voters, who fear losing jobs to low-wage countries. Free-trade bills tend to get passed in odd-numbered years (e.g. NAFTA 1993, CAFTA 2005).

13.  Colombia’s neighbors – not Colombia – will get more attention from the United States and the international community. Washington’s attention span is short, and for many policymakers Colombia – with its pro-U.S. president who insists that drug crops are being reduced and the war is being won – can safely be placed on the back burner. Compare that to Venezuela and Bolivia, which have elected leaders highly critical of the United States, or Peru, where populist candidate Ollanta Humala suddenly has a slim lead in the polls. In 2006, we may see these other Andean countries get more press coverage and appear more prominently in diplomats’ statements and congressional speeches.

And that’s it for 2005. Thank you for visiting this blog, and best wishes for a happy New Year.

3 Responses to “Out on a limb: 13 predictions for 2006”

  1. Jourmuga Says:

    Uribe gets 47 percent in first round and is assassinated before final vote – Chaos and military takeover follow and Venezuela threatens war if UN Pece keepers not allowed to enter Colombia to prepare it for constitutional conventions…

  2. Adam Isacson Says:

    And I thought that I was going out on a limb!

  3. sjh Says:

    For very selfish reasons (my impending move to Bogota), let’s hope that the most optimistic scenarios play out.

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