Colombia glitters abroad amid grumpiness at home

President Juan Manuel Santos (right) and Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace Sergio Jaramillo
President Juan Manuel Santos (right) and Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace Sergio Jaramillo

By any yardstick, Colombia is poised for a stellar year. It’s expected to sign a peace deal that will end the hemisphere’s oldest civil conflict, have the region’s strongest economy, and play host to high-profile visits from both Pope Francis and President Barack Obama. To top it off, it’s even in the running for an Oscar.

But talk to people on the street and the mood is decidedly sour. Pocketbooks have been strained by the twin woes of a devalued currency and nagging inflation. And an El Niño-related drought is threatening water and energy shortages.

In that sense, Colombia is likely to have both a banner and a bummer of a year. And whichever sentiment tips the balance could have deep repercussions for President Juan Manuel Santos.

Peace at Last?

Barring any last minute complications, this will be the year the government signs a peace deal with the country’s largest guerrilla group and puts an end to a half-century conflict that has taken more than 200,000 lives.

On Wednesday, Santos sent his negotiating team back to Havana (where the talks have been taking place since 2012) with orders not to let up until they’ve ironed out the last details. The administration has set a March 23 deadline for a pact even though the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, have said it could take longer.

Regardless of the timing, a peace deal would end the hemisphere’s bloodiest and longest-running confrontation.

“If we reach peace, it will be the most spectacular year in the history of the country,” Santos told El Tiempo newspaper.

That Colombia, long synonymous with drugs and bloodshed, is turning the corner has made it something of a cause célèbre on a planet starved for good news.

“We’re in a world with many conflicts,” World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said Friday during an official visit. “But the peace process here is very important; it’s a model for the entire world.”

Last week, U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon called Colombian peace a priority for 2016. The peace process also got a shout-out in Obama’s State of the Union Address, and Pope Francis frequently mentions it in his prayers. (Both Obama and Pope Francis have indicated they might be visiting this Andean nation in coming months, although there are no firm dates yet.)

And yet here, the government isn’t feeling the love.

As she de-thorned roses in her Bogotá flower shop, Marta Chacón said 2016 was looking like “a terrible disaster.”

“All the prices are going up and they’re raising our taxes, and all for what?” she said. “It’s all so they can subsidize the guerrillas there in Havana.”

In her mind, peace is going to be pricey, as the government helps the estimated 7,000 former combatants find their feet in society and makes restitution to victims of the conflict.

According to a December poll by IPSOS Napoleón Franco, only 38 percent of the population is optimistic about the peace process and only 37 percent agree with the way negotiations are being handled.

“Everyone’s in favor of Colombia reaching peace,” said Javier Restrepo, IPSOS’ director of public opinion, “but not everybody agrees on a negotiated solution.”

As Chacón suggests, there’s unhappiness about the concessions the government will make to cement a deal, particularly at a time when the entire region is feeling the economic strain of falling crude and commodity prices.

Among those concessions are no prison time for guerrillas who cooperate and tell the truth, and an open door for the FARC to participate in politics.

According to the IPSOS poll, 91 percent say the FARC must face jail time and 78 percent say they should not be allowed to hold public office.

Part of the problem may be the success of talks thus far, said Sandra Borda, the dean of political science at Bogota’s Jorge Tadeo Lozano University. There’s the growing sense that peace, once thought unobtainable, might now be inevitable.

So while the international community is energized by the prospect of peace, many Colombians have moved on to focus on issues that affect their daily lives, such as the loss of purchasing power and entrenched street crime.

“The government has put together a very successful international strategy, but they’ve failed to tie it into the local reality,” Borda said. “People are beginning to recognize that a country in peace still has many problems to resolve.”

Risky Referendum?

The national crankiness could have a real impact on the process itself. The administration has said that once a deal is finalized it will put it before the country in a referendum — an idea the FARC has not agreed to.

That could be risky for an administration that has seen it approval ratings plummet. When Santos took office in 2010, confidence in the government was at 55 percent. By 2015 that figure had slid to 27 percent, according to a poll by Gallup.

IPSOS says Santos’ approval rating is hovering near 34 percent.

“I don’t know if there are many places in the world where an unpopular government has been able to get its proposals approved” through a referendum, said Restrepo. “There’s a very high risk that a referendum on the peace process will turn into a referendum on the performance of the government.”

To complicate matters, the process has some powerful detractors. Former President Alvaro Uribe, for example, will undoubtedly campaign against a deal he feels makes too many concessions.

Alejo Vargas, a professor at Bogota’s National University and the director of a think-tank that follows the peace process, said Uribe, now a senator, already had his chance to derail the process.

During the 2014 presidential election, which hinged on the peace talks, Santos beat Uribe’s candidate, Oscar Iván Zuluaga, by almost 1 million votes.

Since then, Uribe has railed against the negotiations in the press and social media, but Vargas does’t see him swaying national sentiment.

“The reality is that all of Uribe’s tweets don’t have that much of an impact,” Vargas said. “The same way that Santos won reelection with a clear mandate to end the conflict, he will also win a hypothetical referendum by a large margin.”

The administration claims the gloom is not merited.

On Friday, Colombia’s Finance Minister Mauricio Cárdenas said the economy will grow 3.2 percent this year and that industry and manufacturing might spike 7.5 percent thanks to the devalued currency.

That growth rate “is extraordinary in this international environment,” Cardenas said. “We’ll be in the first place of all Latin American economies.”

And Santos has said peace will bring huge dividends in the form of increased foreign investment, agricultural development and tourism.

Chacón, however, isn’t buying it. She said Colombia increasingly reminds her of neighboring countries famous for chaos. She said her home was robbed and emptied two years ago and that the government steals from her everyday through taxes, poor public services and corruption.

“I can’t wait for the day we can get out from underneath this administration,” she said. “They’re turning us into Venezuela.”