Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

Categories

Get a weekly update in your email




Colombia

“A purely military approach has proved not to work”

Asked by Spain’s El País how Colombia’s new government can take on the country’s armed and criminal groups, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ representative in Colombia, Juliette de Rivero, urges a move away from the hunt for “high value targets.” Instead, she calls for more government presence in long-abandoned territories, and more protection of the population.

The devil is in the details, of course, but this is a succinct declaration of principles for a better security strategy. De Rivero goes on to point out that much of what is needed was already foreseen in Colombia’s 2016 peace accord.

Q. In your report you say that the previous government’s strategy of attacking armed group leaders was not effective. The current one has said that they still do not have clear “high value targets”. They are going to have to keep looking for the commanders, what should they do differently this time?

A. For us, the first objective has to be to protect the civilian population. In other words, the military and state strategy must have as its objective the population and their protection, because they are really exposed to such a high level of violence that this should be the first objective. Second, it must be a comprehensive strategy, not only military, and it must be accompanied by the entire state apparatus to resolve the underlying issues. To advance in resolving the land issue, to consolidate what was started with the Territorially Focused Development Programs [PDET]. Alternatives must also be created to illicit economies and the state must be more present and stronger in those places. Local authorities are very weak compared to armed groups, so they have to be consolidated as much as the other branches of the state, such as the judicial apparatus, the prosecutors’ offices, etc. We believe that this is the set of things that can begin to provide an answer, but a purely military approach has proved not to work.

Colombia’s weak peso

I just paid $46.59 per night to stay in the Holiday Inn right in the middle of Bogotá’s business district. A perfectly quiet, clean chain hotel with fast internet, hot water, and free breakfast.

The Colombian peso is so weak right now: in part because the dollar is strong everywhere, but in part because investors had a little freakout after Colombians elected a “leftist” president.

On this last trip, I found myself tipping cab drivers 50% (tips aren’t usually a thing in taxis) because the rides were so cheap (like $7 for a half-hour trip) that they barely seemed enough to cover the gas.

Some photos from yesterday’s presidential inauguration in Colombia

It was an honor to be in the audience at yesterday’s swearing-in of President Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Márquez. Here is a Flickr album of 40 photos taken with my little point-and-shoot camera, which has a decent zoom lens.

Some of them came out well. Feel free to use them with attribution.

And here’s me during the break in the action while we waited for them to bring out Bolívar’s sword.

At Razón Pública: Iván Velásquez, ministro de Defensa: por qué y para qué

The Colombian publication Razón Pública today published a new piece by me about the defense and security challenges the country is facing, six days before it swears in a new president. That president will be the first leftist politician in Colombia’s modern history, and his choice to lead the Defense Ministry, Iván Velásquez, is one of Latin America’s best-known anti-corruption fighters.

I argue here that Velásquez is a good choice because he at least stands a credible chance of making progress on three urgent security priorities:

  • Combating corruption within the officer corps;
  • Increasing government presence in abandoned marginal rural areas where armed groups and coca thrive; and
  • Deeply reforming and civilianizing the police.

We’ll be adapting some of the language in this column for a WOLA commentary later this week, which will have an English version.

WOLA Podcast: “What happens with the Petro government could become a model for engaging with the region”

My WOLA colleague Gimena Sánchez was in Colombia for the June 19 election that brought a left candidate to power there for the first time in nearly anyone’s lifetime. We recorded a podcast about it on Friday, and here it is. Here’s the blurb from WOLA’s podcast site.

Colombia’s June 19 presidential election had a historic result: the first left-of-center government in the country’s modern history. Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla who demobilized over 30 years ago, will be sworn in to the presidency on August 7. His running mate, Afro-Colombian social movement leader and environmental defender Francia Márquez, will be Colombia’s next vice president.

WOLA’s director for the Andes, Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, was in Colombia on election day, and has a lot to share about what she saw and heard. She and host Adam Isacson talk about what made Petro’s victory possible—including high levels of popular discontent. They discuss the political transition so far, the immediate challenges of governability and tax revenue, implications for implementing Colombia’s 2016 peace accord, and hope for greater participation of women, Afro-descendant, Indigenous, and LGBTI Colombians.

The discussion covers areas of potential disagreement with a U.S. government that has long made Colombia its largest aid recipient, including drug policy, trade, and Venezuela policy. Sánchez and Isacson also discuss new areas of potential U.S.-Colombian cooperation, including judicial strengthening and implementation of peace accord commitments that could stabilize long-ungoverned territories.

Links to recent WOLA analysis of Colombia’s elections:

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Social leaders in Colombia: the crisis is not abating

The UN verification mission in Colombia counted 56 killings of human rights defenders and social leaders in just 3 months, from March 26 to June 27. (All but seven remain to be verified.)

That’s three homicides every five days. In the nearly five years and four months before this latest quarterly reporting period, the UN Mission counted about one homicide very four days.

For people who want to participate non-violently in local politics, the pace of death is not slowing.

The image is from the infographic report accompanying the UN Mission’s latest quarterly report on the peace process. The press release summarizing that report is here.

The Wrong Man at the Wrong Time

After about 2 1/2 years, the commander of Colombia’s army, Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro, is leaving. This is not a bad thing. His exit is long overdue.

Why overdue? I can’t speak to the corruption allegations President-Elect Gustavo Petro hints at here, in a June 25 interview with Colombia’s Cambio magazine.

Rather, Gen. Zapateiro has been most problematic because of his public messaging on human rights and civil-military relations.

The General posted this charming tweet, a video of slithering snakes, the day after Colombia’s transitional justice tribunal (the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, JEP) published findings that the armed forces had killed 6,402 civilians between 2002 and 2008, falsely counting most victims as armed-group members killed in combat.

The investigators and JEP personnel denouncing “false positives,” you see, were reptiles.

Here’s the General, at one of the most intense moments of Colombia’s 2021 National Strike protests, calling the feared ESMAD riot police “heroes in black,” urging them to “keep working in the same manner that you have been.” At the time, the ESMAD were killing many protesters, and maiming dozens more.

Following a March 2022 raid in which soldiers likely killed at least 4 non-combatants, the General said, “This isn’t the first operation in which pregnant women and minors get killed.”

When candidate Petro, on Twitter, accused officers of colluding w/ the neo-paramilitary Gulf Clan, the General made a highly irregular foray into electoral politics, reviving an accusation that Petro had taken a cash bribe (charges were dropped in 2021).

Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro sent damaging messages on human rights. His public statements made the armed forces appear improperly aligned with a specific political ideology.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s insecurity measures worsened, and armed groups proliferated. So no, I won’t miss him.

Adding up the pro-Petro coalition in Colombia’s new Congress

Surprisingly (to me, anyway), the congressional delegations of three of Colombia’s mainstream political parties have lined up in support of the left government of President-Elect Gustavo Petro.

By my best count—which could be off by a bit, and is subject to constant change—Gustavo Petro’s pro-government coalition now includes 78 of 108 senators, and 135 of 188 House members. Here, I added yellow highlights to graphics created by El Tiempo to show, as best as I can approximate, what the incoming President’s majorities look like:

The Liberal Party, led by former president César Gaviria, announced its support for the incoming government on June 22, joining the Green Party, Petro’s Pacto Histórico, Comunes (the former FARC), at least 9 of the 16 legislators representing special temporary districts for victims, a result of the peace accord, and some smaller parties.

On June 25, 14 senators and 25 House members from the Conservative Party signed a declaration reading, “We will not be an opposition party, and we declare our support for the legislative agenda that the incoming government proposes.”

On June 26, the “La U” party—which backed every sitting government since its creation in 2005—declared its decision “to be part of the government’s parliamentary coalition.”

Cambio Radical, another traditional center-right party, has yet to declare that it will back Petro’s government, but it has not closed the door.

The only large party now clearly in opposition to Petro’s incoming government is the far-right Centro Democrático of ex-president Álvaro Uribe and outgoing President Iván Duque. Petro and Uribe are likely to meet this week.

Colombia: I hope someone’s taking notes

If you have the time—say, an extra hour or two per day—this week is an amazing moment to start chronicling the Gustavo Petro presidency in Colombia. Whatever you think of Petro and his coalition, it’s a historic break, and it’s going to be an epic, roller-coaster narrative.

Who are the main characters in this drama and what motivates them? Where is there friction within the coalition? How might daily life and power relations change in Latin America’s third most-populous country? Who is being given a voice who never had it before? How does the conservative traditionalist bloc resist? Where will the armed forces come down? How do the United States and other foreign powers respond, and why? What mistakes do Petro and his coalition commit, and why? Do they cling to their ideals or does power corrupt? What will this four-year story tell us about politics and human relations at this moment of economic, racial, climate, and justice crisis in our hemisphere? In the world?

Sounds expansive, I know, but what a huge and dramatic story. If you were ever looking for a subject for a book, a blog, a podcast series, a video product, or a combination of all of the above and more, this is a big one, and now is when to start taking copious notes.

Act I (Petro’s and Francia’s campaign and the conditions that made possible a left victory in Colombia) has just ended. But Act II just started this week, and now is the time to jump aboard, for anyone who has the time and inclination to interpret this story.

I haven’t aged a bit

A colleague at the Institute for Policy Studies sent me this photo from October 2007, when Colombian President-Elect Gustavo Petro won the organization’s Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award.

The last polls are done in Colombia

It’s illegal in Colombia to publish new poll data less than 7 days before an election. The final round of the country’s presidential election is next Sunday, so this is it.

La Silla Vacía maintains a weighted poll of polls, sort of 538 style. It shows Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernandez within 0.7 points of each other. And we’re not going to see any more polling after this.

With this close of a vote, and this much uncertainty, the looming question for the evening of the 19th and the days immediately afterward is: will the loser and his base of supporters concede? Or will the second half of June be a scary time of anger, fear, and disorder in Colombia?

If Petro wins by a razor-slim margin and Rodolfo Hernández rejects it: Hernández has picked up support from some wealthy and far-right elements who don’t have a history of playing by the rules. Though the political bosses, landowners and others who supported paramilitarism 15-20 years ago probably can’t force non-recognition of a Petro victory, they can spend the succeeding weeks and months making much of the country ungovernable and violent if they don’t accept the outcome. There also appears to be white-hot hatred of Petro in some corners of the military, and while I don’t foresee unconstitutional saber-rattling during the days following the election, I can’t dismiss the possibility either.

If Hernández wins by a razor-slim margin and Gustavo Petro rejects it: Petro’s supporters include core participants in last year’s national strike, which paralyzed the country for two months. They can control the streets again. And don’t expect Colombia’s National Police to obey proper use of force standards when they respond: they have little record of doing that in the past.

The second half of June could be really complicated.

Spanish version of today’s “Responsible Statecraft” analysis of Colombia

I’m grateful to the Quincy Institute’s online magazine, Responsible Statecraft, for publishing my analysis of the current moment in Colombia’s elections. The first round was five days ago, and the second, between two very non-traditional candidates, is coming on June 19. It’s going to be a wild ride.

Read the English version there.

Here (with help from DeepL, and me giving that a non-native-speaker edit) is el contenido en español.

“Cómo un populista esquivó la vieja maquinaria de izquierda-derecha de Colombia”

Por Adam Isacson

Las elecciones presidenciales de Colombia se dirigen a una segunda vuelta el 19 de junio. Es imposible predecir quién gobernará de 2022 a 2026, pero es seguro que habrá un cambio sorprendente. Por primera vez en la historia moderna del tercer país más grande de América Latina, el candidato elegido por la arraigada élite política colombiana no es uno de los finalistas.

Los colombianos están agotados por la pandemia, el aumento de la pobreza y la desigualdad, el incremento de la delincuencia y la proliferación de grupos armados, y un gobierno en funciones que no ha sabido transmitir empatía. En la primera vuelta del 29 de mayo, el 40,3% apoyó a Gustavo Petro, el primer candidato viable de centro-izquierda en al menos 80 años, en un país donde los candidatos reformistas han sido asesinados con frecuencia.

Aunque estaba llenando plazas y recibiendo mucha cobertura de los medios de comunicación, las encuestas habían mostrado correctamente que era improbable que Petro, ex guerrillero y ex alcalde de Bogotá, alcanzara el umbral del 50 por ciento necesario para una victoria en la primera ronda. Las encuestas apuntaban a que Petro se enfrentaría en la segunda vuelta, y probablemente vencería, a Federico Gutiérrez, el candidato respaldado por el partido del actual presidente de Colombia, Iván Duque, un conservador impopular.

Eso no fue lo que ocurrió: Gutiérrez quedó en tercer lugar, y Petro se enfrentará a otro candidato “outsider” a favor del cambio. Rodolfo Hernández, un irascible ex alcalde de la sexta ciudad más grande de Colombia, de 77 años, obtuvo el 28,2%. Hernández, un acaudalado empresario que se presenta sin partido político y que aparece más a menudo en Tik-Tok y otras plataformas que en persona, atrajo a los colombianos opuestos a la política de Petro pero descontentos con el statu quo. Se ha disparado en las últimas encuestas, impulsado por un estilo populista, campechano y propenso a las meteduras de pata, y por un mensaje anticorrupción de gran calado (aunque se están investigando algunas irregularidades en la contratación durante su gestión como alcalde).

La ventaja de Petro y el auge de Hernández supusieron un duro golpe para la maquinaria política tradicional de Colombia, incluida la del otrora dominante ex presidente Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), un conservador cuyo candidato elegido (incluido él mismo) había llegado a la ronda final de todas las elecciones desde 2002, perdiendo sólo una vez. Quien gane el 19 de junio no estará en deuda con los partidos mayoritarios de Colombia, aunque éstos sigan teniendo muchos escaños en el Congreso. Y muy notablemente, independientemente del resultado, la próxima vicepresidenta de Colombia será una mujer negra: la líder del movimiento social Francia Márquez (Petro) o la académica Marelén Castillo (Hernández).

La matemática ahora mismo favorece a Rodolfo Hernández. Su porcentaje de votos válidos el 29 de mayo, más los de Gutiérrez, arroja un voto de “cualquiera menos Petro” de hasta el 54 por ciento. Una primera encuesta, publicada el 1 de junio, mostraba a Petro y a Hernández dentro del margen de error, con Hernández ligeramente por delante, y un gran número de indecisos (14 por ciento). Un segundo sondeo, sin indecisos, daba a Hernández un margen de 52-45.

Aunque se trata de una votación entre dos candidatos del “cambio” con fuertes tendencias populistas, el 19 de junio no será una contienda entre la izquierda y la derecha: ver las elecciones de Colombia de esa manera es malinterpretarlas. Hernández, en un claro esfuerzo por despojarse de la etiqueta de “derecha”, expuso en un tuit el 30 de mayo un hilo de propuestas políticas tan centristas, incluso de izquierda en algunos temas, que Petro lo acusó de “regoger mis propuestas”.

  • Ambos prometen implementar el acuerdo de paz de 2016 con las FARC, al que Uribe y sus partidarios se opusieron. El programa de Petro discute en mayor detalle cómo lo implementaría, incluyendo las prioridades de género y étnicas.
  • Ambos prometen proseguir negociaciones con el grupo guerrillero que queda en Colombia, el Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), de más de 50 años de antigüedad.
  • Ambos restablecerían las relaciones con el régimen de Nicolás Maduro en Venezuela, un probable golpe al gobierno alternativo opositor de Juan Guaidó, a quien tanto Bogotá como Washington reconocen actualmente como presidente de Venezuela.
  • Ambos son muy críticos con la política de drogas tal y como se ha practicado en el último medio siglo. Hernández le dijo al embajador estadounidense que estaba a favor de la legalización de las drogas, cuando se reunieron en enero. Ambos buscarían legalizar el cannabis recreativo, y no se reanudará la dura política de erradicación de la coca mediante la fumigación de herbicidas desde aviones, apoyada por Estados Unidos y suspendida por razones sanitarias desde 2015.
  • Ambos candidatos se oponen al fracking, apoyan el derecho al aborto (recientemente legalizado por una decisión de la Corte Constitucional), y apoyan los derechos del colectivo LGBTQ, el matrimonio gay, y la adopción por parte de parejas homosexuales.
  • Ambos dicen que apoyan el derecho a la protesta social, incluido el paro nacional que paralizó Colombia durante semanas en abril y mayo de 2021. Y ambos critican duramente a Uribe, el ex presidente de línea dura al que los colombianos asocian con importantes logros en materia de seguridad, pero también con violaciones de los derechos humanos y faltas de ética.

La lente izquierda-derecha, entonces, es de poca utilidad para entender lo que está sucediendo. Las posiciones de Gustavo Petro son tradicionalmente de izquierda, pero no está claro si Petro gobernaría como un socialdemócrata o como un “hombre fuerte” populista. Hernández es más amigable con el sector de las grandes empresas, pero las posiciones enumeradas muestran más flexibilidad ideológica que la que hemos visto en populistas de derecha como Jair Bolsonaro o Donald Trump. En lugar de llamarlo el “Trump colombiano“, tiene más sentido comparar a Hernández con populistas latinoamericanos semiautocráticos que no encajan fácilmente en los encasillamientos de izquierda-derecha, como el mexicano Andrés Manuel López Obrador o el salvadoreño Nayib Bukele.

Gane quien gane, el próximo presidente de Colombia será un líder que tratará de apelar directamente al pueblo, que se peleará a menudo con los medios de comunicación, y que probablemente no defenderá las normas establecidas y las frágiles instituciones. El próximo líder se resistirá a los controles y equilibrios democráticos; ambos han planteado la idea de utilizar poderes de emergencia. Se enfrentará a los enemigos: para Petro, son las élites tradicionales de Colombia; para Hernández, son los que considera corruptos, o, de forma alarmante, la población inmigrante venezolana, que ha sido objeto de algunos comentarios xenófobos.

Todos estos son elementos de lo que podríamos llamar el “libreto populista”, un elemento emblemático de las democracias en declive del siglo XXI en todo el mundo. El próximo presidente de Colombia podría ser popular y transformador, pero el país podría ser aún menos democrático que es.

Esto supone un reto para Estados Unidos. Tanto las administraciones demócratas como las republicanas han invertido 25 años, y más de 13.000 millones de dólares, en construir una “relación especial” con Colombia, especialmente con las fuerzas de seguridad colombianas. Al presidente Joe Biden le gusta llamar a Colombia “la piedra angular de la política estadounidense en América Latina y el Caribe”. A Washington le preocupa perder influencia en el hemisferio occidental en favor de China y otras grandes potencias rivales.

Washington está a punto de descubrir que sólo ha construido una “relación especial” con un pequeño segmento de Colombia -las élites urbanas, las fuerzas armadas, las asociaciones empresariales-, lo que le deja sin preparación para trabajar con un gobierno cuya base está en otra parte, en la sociedad civil organizada y entre las clases medias descontentas, los colombianos más pobres, y los afrodescendientes e indígenas. Independientemente de quién gane, es probable que la relación entre Estados Unidos y Colombia siga siendo cordial en general, pero el camino que queda por recorrer será muy accidentado.

Los puntos de vista de ambos candidatos sobre las relaciones con Venezuela y sobre la política antidroga -especialmente la erradicación de cultivos forzados y la extradición- podrían ponerlos en vías de colisión con la administración Biden y con los republicanos del Congreso. La visión crítica de Petro sobre el libre comercio y la inversión extranjera, y su probable deseo de relajar la asociación militar entre Estados Unidos y Colombia, provocaría hostilidad en algunos sectores de Washington. El resultado podría ser palabras desagradables, reducción de la presencia diplomática, reducción de la asistencia y, quizás, un abrazo aún más estrecho a las élites empresariales y políticas de Colombia ya fuera del poder.

La relación de Washington con Colombia podría llegar a parecerse a la que tiene ahora con otros gobiernos populistas o de tendencia autoritaria en la región (aparte de los de izquierda dura -Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela- con los que las relaciones son totalmente hostiles). Si es así, los funcionarios estadounidenses evitarán airear la mayoría de los desacuerdos en público. Preferirán enfatizar las áreas de cooperación, como hacen hoy en día en materia de migración con México y Centroamérica, o en los lazos militares con Brasil.

Los funcionarios estadounidenses tratarán de relacionarse con algunas instituciones aunque se mantengan al margen de los líderes políticos. En Brasil, El Salvador y Guatemala, por ejemplo, el Comando Sur de EE.UU. continúa con un programa intenso de compromisos militares incluso cuando las relaciones con los presidentes Bolsonaro, Bukele y Giammattei son distantes. Es fácil imaginar un escenario en el que la relación entre militares, en vez de entre civiles, se convierta en la interacción más estrecha del gobierno estadounidense con Colombia.

El próximo reto inmediato para la política estadounidense -y para la diplomacia internacional en general- se producirá el 19 de junio. Si, como parece probable, los candidatos están a pocos puntos porcentuales de distancia entre sí, la posibilidad es alta de que uno de ellos clame “fraude” y rechace el resultado. Si Hernández rechaza el resultado, podría contar con el apoyo de poderosos intereses empresariales y jefes políticos, y quizás incluso de facciones de las fuerzas de seguridad. Si Petro lo rechaza, las protestas callejeras podrían paralizar el país, y quizás volver a encontrarse con una respuesta policial violenta.

Si esto ocurre, el gobierno de Estados Unidos, junto con la OEA y todos los amigos de Colombia, deben trabajar para desactivar la violencia y canalizar las tensiones hacia el diálogo. Eso significa basar todas las declaraciones públicas en hechos establecidos, no en resultados deseados. Significa condenar el comportamiento que viola los derechos humanos, algo que la administración Biden tardó en hacer durante las protestas nacionales de 2021.

Como demuestra la elección de dos candidatos ajenos a la sociedad, los colombianos están con los ánimos crispados en este momento. El objetivo diplomático debe ser amplificar lo que es cierto y buscar desescalar rápidamente. Sólo entonces podremos pasar a preocuparnos por la política y el populismo.

Colombia Elections: ‘The Next President is Either Going to Effectively Kill the Peace Accord or Save it’

Here’s highlights of a discussion Gimena Sánchez and I had with Héctor Silva at WOLA the other day.

The first round of the Presidential elections in Colombia was marked by the real possibility of a triumph of the political left, a stalemate in the peace process, the proliferation of armed groups, and growing violence.

Gustavo Petro, former senator and former mayor of Bogota, obtained 40 percent of the votes and Rodolfo Hernández, an emerging candidate, came in second with 28 percent. One of the big questions ahead of the second round on June 19 is whether Hernández will be able to capitalize on the 55 percent of voters who did not choose Petro.

In this interview, Gimena Sánchez, Director for the Andes at WOLA and Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at WOLA, discuss the main challenges the new president will face, the risks of electoral violence, and the implications of Colombia’s new political map for the bilateral relationship with the United States.

Read in English at wola.org | Leer en español en wola.org

The Duque Presidency Limps to the Finish Line

Left, October 23, 2021: Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, proclaims “the end of the Gulf Clan” neo-paramilitary group. (Also known as the “Úsuga Clan,” the “Urabeños,” and the “Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.”)

Right, May 7, 2022: the “Gulf Clan” neo-paramilitary group declares an “armed strike” upon its onetime leader’s extradition to the United States. With threats and over 100 acts of violence, the group stops economic activity in at least part of 11 of Colombia’s 32 departments.


Unsurprisingly, analysts of Colombia’s conflict—like Esteban Salazar of the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation on October 25, 2021—understood what was going on:

Older Posts
Get a weekly update in your e-mail:




This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.