Free-Trade Deal May Prove Greater Obstacle to Colombian Peace Than FARC

May 15 marked the inauguration of a highly controversial and recently-ratified free trade deal between the United States and Colombia. In Miami, shipments of Colombian flowers arrived to the docks while motorcycles manufactured in Kansas City were rolled out of their containers in the capital city Bogota. The exchange was the first under a newly-minted pact and was the subject of fierce battles between human rights activists and conservative free marketeers after it was first drafted some six years ago. While the latter camp contends that trade will bring great benefit to both sides, others argue that it rewards Colombia for bad behavior, will promote more violence and will adversely affect the livelihoods of poor farmers in the Colombian countryside. After voting against the deal on these grounds while in the Senate, President Barack Obama changed course last year, expressing unequivocal support for the agreement. “This represents a potential $1 billion of exports and it could mean thousands of jobs for workers here in the United States,” Obama said. And so I believe that we can structure a trade agreement that is a “win-win’ for both our countries.” The president signed it into law shortly thereafter following heated debates in the Congress.

What was supposed to be a moment of celebration in Colombia quickly turned bloody when a car bomb detonated in downtown Bogota, killing three people and injuring many more. The Associated Press describes the attack as “targeting a hardline former interior minister kill[ing] two of his bodyguards and injur[ing] at least thirty-nine people in Bogota’s uptown commercial district…the former minister and morning radio host, Fernando Londono, suffered minor wounds and was out of danger after being operated on to remove glass shards from his chest, authorities said.” Time magazine reports that “Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro said a pedestrian attached an explosive to a door of Londono’s armored SUV and set it off remotely. He said authorities had video of the attack.”

The bomb blast arrives as a huge shock to the capital which, despite a bloody past, has enjoyed nearly a decade of tranquility. It’s true, as Reuters reminds us, that “The last bomb attack attributed to the FARC in Bogota occurred in August 2010, shortly after President Juan Manuel Santos took office,” and that “there have been several small bombings since then, for which no particular group was blamed.” Yet it hasn’t been since 2003 that the group has pulled off a high-profile assault on the capital that has been received with such terror.

Despite the hideous carnage, though, the explosion revealed a number of things that hold out the possibility for hope. For one, while all eyes have been on the FARC as the most likely perpetrators of the violence, the rebel group-cum-criminal gang has yet to “take responsibility for the attack on websites or the Twitter account where they sometimes issue statements. If the bombing is attributed to the group,” notes the Miami Herald, “it would be the first time in almost ten years that the rebels have been behind a fatal bombing in the capital.” This, in turn, might suggest that the attack “was not ordered by the ruling Secretariat but rather came from further down the FARC’s hierarchy,” as Fox rightly suggests. While this would certainly put a strain on the recent efforts at establishing some sort of peace between the guerillas and the Colombian state, the fact that FARC’s highest leadership did endorse the action would still leave enough breathing room for talks to continue despite this most recent bump in the road.

Something else to keep in mind during all this is the discipline Santos has exhibited throughout the ordeal. While many commentators, and even government representatives, have been quick to assign blame to the FARC, the Colombian president has been careful not to point fingers before investigators have a clear sense of who was responsible. This is a refreshing change of pace from the presidency of Alvaro Uribe—who embraced any pretext for hammering the guerillas with the iron fist of military action while mobilizing popular fear for the consolidation of political support—and a signal that Santos will not be easily rattled or distracted from his commitment to seeking a negotiated settlement with the FARC while at the same time steering the country to some semblance of economic prosperity.

At the same time, there’s no getting around the fact that the FARC hasn’t exactly been a good-faith partner in establishing paths to peace. One need look no further than their recent kidnapping of a French journalist Romeo Lanlois just weeks after declaring their intention to cease the long-standing practice, nor their justification that “Langlois, was captured in the middle of a battle wearing a military uniform, is in our hands,” and therefore “a prisoner of war”—a claim rejected by just about everyone, including Human Rights Watch. And if it indeed emerges that yesterday’s bombing was the work of low-level FARC operatives, serious questions about the leadership’s ability to keep control over wildcat operations could undermine the government’s faith in FARC to honor any negotiated settlement.

But the biggest threat to peace, paradoxically, could be the free trade agreement. The FARC’s continued relevance is due in large degree to their ability to recruit desperate rurally-based Colombians who have been shut out of the formal economy, and feed off the proceeds of Colombia’s comparative advantage in narcotics production. If critics of the free trade pact with the United States are correct, “1.8 million small-scale farmers would see their net agricultural income fall by over 16 percent on average, but 400,000 farmers dependent on crops that would compete with US products would lose 48 to 70 percent of their farm income…Undercutting their livelihoods would push farmers back into coca production, the raw material for cocaine” and flood FARC coffers (as well as those of their paramilitary counterparts to the north) with the profits from trafficked drugs to the United States and Europe. Flush with cash, and capitalizing on the sympathies of alienated farmers angered by the deleterious effects of free trade with Washington, the FARC could decide that power (and profit) lay in confronting the government, not working with it. At that point, all bets are off.