Medellin, Colombia – Partisan politics in most countries revolve around petty insults, the occasional clever barb, economic concerns and corruption scandals. Despite its history of violence, Colombia is no different.
And while the minutiae of polling numbers in Bogota may not be of major interest to readers in Botswana or Brunei, the reverberations of Colombia’s vote will echo far beyond its borders. Here are five reasons why you should care:
1) Much of the stuff you use on a daily basis comes from here
Buying flowers for that special someone? Craving a banana? Need a cup of joe to wake up in the morning? Keen on powdering your nose at the newest hot nightspot? Craving an affordable beach vacation? Then you should care about who wins Sunday’s election.
Colombia is a major exporter of the aforementioned resources, along with some manufactured goods. The US alone, for example, receives 387,000 barrels of oil daily from Colombia, making it Uncle Sam’s seventh largest foreign petroleum source.
Incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos wants to continue negotiations with FARC rebels in Havana. If a deal is reached, a “peace dividend” could spur job creation, tourism and exports. His main challenger, according to most polls, is Oscar Zuluaga, who wants to end negotiations with the rebels and return to a military solution.
Arms dealers, coffee drinkers and potential holidaymakers, take note.
2) Colombia provides examples of what to do (and not to do) for other countries facing internal conflict
Colombia’s internal conflict isn’t over, but in much of the country, it seems to be winding down. Many small towns where residents were forced from their homes by armed thugs – rightist paramilitaries, leftist rebels, various drug-dealing gangsters and in some cases security forces – are entering the rehabilitation phase.
In San Carlos, an area ravaged by bloody conflict, land mines and mass displacement, residents are tentatively returning to their fields and businesses. The government’s de-mining campaign has been largely successful.
In some cases, neighbours who fought on opposing sides are now living together again in relative harmony. In this town, economic development plans focused on agriculture, new infrastructure projects, and peace-building initiatives seem to have helped.
This could provide lessons to places like Syria, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which have high rates of internal displacement due to their own multifaceted dirty wars.
Many killers who perpetrated atrocities in Colombia, however, have not been brought to account, and some people believe the process has been far too soft on paramilitaries with alleged government links. The relative peace in Colombia hasn’t always come with justice.
3) Drugs, drugs, drugs
No list on Colombia would be complete without mentioning its most infamous export. Yes, Colombia plays a key role in the international narcotics business. And even if you don’t use the stuff, the money from cocaine washes through major banks and real-estate operations.
According to some, drug money plays a unique role in boosting stock markets in New York and London. Speculative investment requires a bit of hard cash so money multipliers can increase. The world of derivatives, leveraged buyouts and inflated financial asset growth needs a bit of hard cash – that’s where drugs, oil and other raw commodities come to the fore.
4) A Shakespearean political drama, or tragic comedy, is being performed
Colombia’s incumbent President Santos once served as defence minister under former president, Alvaro Uribe, a hardliner. The two were close political allies, and by most accounts, friends. That changed in 2010.
Uribe, a technocratic populist from a wealthy rural family, made his career out of battling leftist rebels. FARC fighters killed Uribe’s father in 1983; the ex-president’s vendetta is personal, not just political. Now, Santos is trying to make a peace deal with them.
Uribe saw negotiations as the ultimate betrayal, the unravelling of his two-term reign. The former president was facing numerous investigations for abusing his power and human rights violations, so – naturally – he jumped back into the political arena, winning a senate seat in March.
Now Uribe, who remains popular with many Colombians despite his links to abuses, is backing Zuluaga with the full force of his personality and political power. It’s like a tropical Game of Thrones and is making for intriguing drama.
5) Colombia is now the closest Western ally in South America, bucking the left’s pink tide
This is a good or bad development, depending on one’s view of geopolitics. In a region where socialists or social democrats in Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and other countries in the region are winning election after election, Colombia is bucking the trend. The country is the largest recipient of US military aid in the Western hemisphere: $9.3bn since 1999.
Bogota maintains close defence ties with Washington, London and Tel Aviv. Recently, Colombian security forces have been training troops from countries in Central America wracked by drug violence.
Supporters of these defence agreements say Plan Colombia, a major US aid programme, and the counterinsurgency campaign have improved security. Critics maintain these actions allowed elites to push small farmers off their land, terrorising much of the population in a period of violence that claimed more than 215,000 lives. Regardless of one’s view, Colombia’s place as the “Israel of Latin America” – as one analyst put it – cannot be ignored.
Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter: @chrisarsenaul