Colombian Peace Talks Bode Well for Global Energy Security
By Andrés Cala
Peace talks that began this week in Oslo, Norway between the Colombian government and American continent’s most powerful guerillas bode well for global energy security with the promise of further increases in production from the world’s rising oil power.
Colombia already produces nearly 1 million barrels per day and exports three quarters of that, the result of increased security that has attracted foreign investment. Already one of the biggest sources of Latin America oil for the US, the country could replace Mexico and Venezuela by the end of the decade as the biggest source of Latin American oil for the US, on top of supplying the world with badly needed additional production capacity.
Moreover, the peace talks have a good chance of delivering peace with the 8,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known for their Spanish acronym FARC. These are not the first peace negotiations, but the Colombian government has never held the upper hand.
Indeed, after more than 65 years of ongoing war with multiple rebel groups, this is the best chance for peace in Colombia. The FARC for the first time have little choice but to negotiate peace in their nearly 50-year struggle, after a decade of military setbacks and more importantly lost strategic alternatives now that Venezuela is pressing the group to give up its armed struggle.
Why peace is a real possibility
The last peace talks began and ended on the same day January 7, 1999. The legendary leader of the FARC Manuel Marulanda stood up President Andrés Pastrana. The FARC were a 15,000 strong formidable enemy in control of a Switzerland-size demilitarized zone in southern Colombia with little incentive to negotiate.
Back then, I was granted interviews with the top FARC leadership after Marulanda’s disappointing no-show. It was in a cattle farm overlooking the town were the peace talks were taking place. Marulanda and other leaders blamed their arrogance on security issues, but the real reason was that they had little incentive to negotiate.
Indeed, it was a negotiation doomed from the start because it was among equals. Military men understand though that peace is only possible between a victor and the vanquished. A naïve Pastrana didn’t understand that and the FARC used the peace talks to further their military gains.
They had nearly encircled the capital Bogota, replaced the estate in about a third of Colombia’s territory, and were preparing their final assault on the government. They were well-armed, well-financed with a growing drug trade, and motivated.
In 2002, Alvaro Uribe took over as Colombia’s president promising an uncompromising war against the FARC. And he delivered during his 8 years in power, albeit through a strategic alliance with ruthless paramilitary forces that purged Colombia’s countryside, killing thousands and displacing millions from FARC-controlled territory.
All the guerrilla leaders I interview in 1999 were killed by Colombia’s military, except for Marulanda who died of natural causes. They lost more than half of their fighting force to defections and the military campaign that put them on the defensive.
But Uribe, who was the right-wing populist antithesis of neighboring Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, didn’t understand Mao Zedong’s undisputable premise that a guerrilla is never really defeated until it loses all hope of a military victory. He confronted Venezuela and Ecuador, who reacted by giving the FARC much needed ideological support and a rearguard to regroup.
In 2010 Juan Manuel Santos, who was Uribe’s defense minister, spearheaded a brilliant diplomatic U-turn. He reengaged Chávez, still his ideological opposite, and took on a pragmatic approach in his diplomatic relations. Without sacrificing vital ties with US, which had bankrolled Colombia’s war against the FARC with $7 billion in arms and intelligence assets, he agreed to a mutual non-interference pact with Chávez.
The result was a net positive for Colombia, which profited from growing trade with Venezuela and improved security as Venezuela shut its borders and started asphyxiating the FARC. Chávez, who had considered using the FARC as an asymmetric deterrent against a perceived threat from the US and Colombia during Uribe’s government, turned its back on the FARC and thus put to rest any FARC aspiration for a military victory.
That is the only way to end wars. A militarily defeated FARC were demoralized as Latin America’s socialist leader turned his back on them.
Chávez has pressured the FARC to negotiate and give up arms, not out of altruism, but because the FARC were undermining his Bolivarian movement. He wants the FARC to become a political party and then incorporate them into a united Latin America’s left under his wing.
The oil potential
Colombia’s new Energy Minister Federico Renjifo said this week Colombia’s small proven reserves of 2 billion barrels could increase 20-fold by 2030 to as much as 41 billion barrels, according to some of the country’s estimates, although he admitted the more realistic target is around 7.7 billion barrels. That is a still significant bounty.
It’s of course uncertain what Colombia’s reserves really are. It hasn’t been explored sufficiently well as a result of the war, but it’s equally true that the recent boost in production is the result of enhanced oil recovery, more than new resources. No game changing discoveries have been made.
Regardless, it’s clear that peace in Colombia bodes well. The government and the FARC have agreed on principle to sign an agreement by 2014. This is probable considering time plays to the benefit of the Colombian government and against the FARC.
Whatever the case, the war in Colombia is nearing an end. Either the FARC negotiate or they will be military reduced to a nuisance, instead of a threat. Colombians broadly reject their armed struggle; their military and financial might is reduced, and they have nowhere to retreat to.
And more significantly, Colombians will finally get their peace, one way or another.
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