Big Winner of Colombia’s Election Is the U.S.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A decade ago, I spent three years as the commander of U.S. Southern Command, a vast, multiservice organization directing all military operations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Our missions included disaster relief, humanitarian operations, medical diplomacy (such as missions from Navy hospital ships), counternarcotics, strategic communications, intelligence collection and a great deal of military-to-military cooperation with 28 other nations.

But the centerpiece of my responsibility was assisting the Colombian government and military deal with the virulent insurgency that had flourished there for 50 years and had caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. It was combat in the jungles, and it was demanding fighting.

Last week, the country held democratic elections with the two leading candidates on diametrically opposite sides of the fence: Ivan Duque, a conservative former assistant to ex-President Alvaro Uribe, the leader who ultimately beat the insurgent military; and Gustavo Petro, a former rebel leader running on a progressive and somewhat socialist platform. The two will meet in a runoff on June 17.

How did we get here? What does it mean for the U.S. and the region?

The insurgency, which began in the 1960s, was led by a group of Marxist ideologues known as the FARC, an acronym for their name in Spanish. They grew to nearly 30,000 adherents, were based throughout the countryside and used torture, murder, intimidation and rape to terrorize the population.

The rebels were bent on creating a revolution against what they perceived as a capitalist and corrupt regime in Bogota. When I arrived in the region, they controlled much of the country, financed their operations through drug dealing, and had a very real chance at overthrowing the government.

It was a dire situation, and when people asked me for a book to read in order to understand it, I usually recommend one by the intrepid Canadian diplomat Nicholas Coghlan, “The Saddest Country." The title summed it up.

The U.S., recognizing the potential disaster of a country of 40 million and a major Latin American economy falling under a violent communist regime, created “Plan Colombia.” Supported by both Republican and Democratic administrations, it provided modest amounts of funding (less than $10 billion, compared to hundreds of billions in Iraq and Afghanistan) and fewer than 1,000 troops.

It might be the best and most cost-effective use of U.S. resources in post-Cold War history, in large part because it put the burden on the Colombians from the very start.

Led by two dynamic leaders, Uribe and Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian military and political organizations were able to blunt the FARC, free hostages, revive the economy and work through human rights concerns over the course of a decade.

The FARC was forced to the bargaining table, and a carefully constructed negotiation (held largely in Cuba, where the FARC felt safe) managed to hammer out a highly controversial agreement. The rebels would lay down their arms and “come in from the jungle,” and in return they would receive repatriation, monetary support and minimal criminal prosecutions.

Perhaps most controversially, they would be allowed to run for office and even be initially guaranteed a small number of seats in the parliament. Santos, who is now president, fought hard to land the agreement and brought it to a referendum, which was eventually successful in 2016. He received the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

Flash forward to the present: former President Uribe, who has fallen out with Santos, now opposes the peace deal as being far too lenient on the FARC, and has actively campaigned against it. His chosen candidate is Duque, the conservative. Petro, the progressive candidate, favors the peace deal.

Most polls are split, and the divisions in the country are on display -- but it will be settled at the ballot box. That is real progress in every dimension. A Duque administration may chip away at the edges of the peace deal, but will be unlikely to dismantle it.

Three key takeaways for the U.S. are embedded in this saga. First, and most importantly, Colombia is a good, pragmatic case study for how Washington can positively engage internationally to achieve outcomes that are in American interests both ideologically and operationally.

The prescription of a limited level of resources, careful congressional oversight, bipartisan consensus, human rights monitoring and a clear sense of the U.S. interests at stake is a powerful set of signposts to apply as we consider other interventions. The lessons of Colombia would stand America in good stead as we consider our level of support in Syria, for example. Or how we move forward in Afghanistan.

A second insight is the importance of Latin America for the U.S. As the Latino population surges in the U.S., the linkages between the nations of this hemisphere are inevitably going to grow. Building a wall may or may not ultimately happen, but demographics and economics will undoubtedly drive a stronger “Partnership for the Americas” over time.

And watching the trajectory of Colombia is highly instructive. Having observed the tide of anti-U.S. sentiment rise over the past 20 years in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil and Argentina (and of course in Cuba), it was crucial that Colombia remain a viable, supportive partner for Washington.

And as the anti-U.S. feelings recede and reverse in some countries, it is all the more important to maintain strong U.S.-Colombian relations. This is all the more vital as Venezuela literally plunges into anarchy. In dealing with the highly volatile situation there, Colombia’s leadership throughout the Americas has been crucial, and will continue to be so.

Third and finally, Colombia’s elections represent part of the “revenge of democracy” just when too many observers globally seem willing to cede primacy to rising strongmen, from Beijing to Moscow. While there are certainly countervailing forces around the globe, democracy still seems to offer the most popular alternative over time.  

Colombia has fought hard -- with modest help from the U.S. -- to emerge from a vicious, anti-democratic insurgency that could have unwound progress throughout the hemisphere. However these elections come out, they are a win for limited intervention, value-driven politics, and above all for the democratic process.  

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.