Friday was an exciting day for Colombia's peace process. First, the country's two largest guerrilla groups -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) -- announced that they would both adhere to a unilateral week-long ceasefire ahead of the upcoming May 25 presidential election, to take effect tomorrow.
Following this announcement, government and FARC negotiators in Havana revealed that after five months of dialogue they had finally reached a preliminary deal on the third item on their five-point agenda, drugs and drug trafficking.
For some reason the New York Times reported that Friday's announcement offered little more than "generalities about how it would help farmers who grow plants like marijuana or coca," but there is much more to it than that. The Wall Street Journal, Economist and Reuters each offered more in-depth English coverage of the particulars of the agreement.
The lengthy joint press communique released on Friday, available here, reveals that the government made three main pledges in the preliminary accord: to create a new system of crop substitution for those who grow illicit substances; launch a new comprehensive program to prevent drug use from a "public health" perspective; and to devise a new strategy to target drug trafficking, money laundering and corruption associated with organized crime. The Colombian state also promised to host an international conference under the auspices of the United Nations to carry out an "objective assessment" of global drug policy, taking into account related "international developments" as well as the Colombian experience.
From a domestic drug policy perspective, perhaps the most significant component of the accord is the government's promise to prioritize manual eradication over its controversial practice of aerial fumigation. The latter would be avoided "whenever possible," taking into account the local community, human rights principles and environmental concerns.
The guerrillas, for their part, agreed to "resolve the problem of illicit drugs...to put an end to any relationship, which as a function of rebellion, may have developed with this phenomenon." That is probably the closest the FARC -- which has long insisted that its only proceeds from drugs come from "taxing" those who oversee coca cultivation, processing and shipment -- will get to an admission of drug ties.
El Espectador reports that President Juan Manuel Santos cast the agreement in a dramatic light, even though the provisions won't apply until a final peace treaty is reached. Implementing them, he said, would mean that a "Colombia without coca" would be in reach. This may be a bit overstated, but the agreement still has major consequences for the country. As UN representative in Colombia Fabrizio Hochschild reminded reporters, 70 percent of coca cultivation occurs in areas where the FARC-government conflict is still raging, and a lasting peace would greatly facilitate anti-drug operations.
- The announcement on Friday was accompanied by yet another bombshell in Colombia’s residential race, which has been marked by scandals involving both the campaigns of President Santos and his main challenger, the Uribe-backed Oscar Zuluaga. While the latter has so far defended himself against the revelation that a hacker associated with his campaign tried to sabotage the peace talks by downplaying his relationship to him, this has become much more difficult. On Saturday, Semana magazine published a video it obtained of Zuluaga meeting with the hacker, who provided him classified information involving FARC leaders in response to his request to “hit” Santos ahead of the election. Particularly interesting is the hacker’s claim to have “access” to the U.S. Southern Command and intelligence obtained from its radar aircrafts in the country. Caracol reports that following the revelation, Zuluaga accused the Santos campaign of setting him up.
- Meanwhile, the official window for public polling in Colombia has closed ahead of the May 25 vote, and the last published surveys show a head heat between President Santos and Zuluaga (both with around 28-9 percent of the vote). It is too late to tell whether the publication of the Zuluaga-hacker video will take a toll on his popularity, but even still it is overwhelmingly likely that the race will go to a second-round vote between the two, which analysts have been predicting for some time.
- The Caracas visit of the UNASUR delegation facilitating talks in Venezuela, which was suspended on Friday, was pushed back to Sunday. El Universal reports that the UNASUR foreign ministers met with members of the opposition in the Vatican Embassy yesterday, where the delegates were presented with a list of demands for the government to meet in order for talks to be resumed. These included the creation of an independent, non-governmental truth commission as well as a revision of charges against alleged political prisoners in the country. According to El Nacional, the delegation is expected to present these demands to the government in a separate meeting today.
- Cesar Alvarez, the governor of Peru’s Ancash state whose corrupt dealings were recently described by the AP as a “mini-dictatorship” within Peru was arrested on Friday. According to El Comercio, a legislative committee is investigating the allegations against him and is expected to submit its reports by the end of the month.
- La Razon reports that in a unique marketing ploy, a Bolivian first division soccer team has announced it intended to sign President Evo Morales as the latest member of the club. The AP points out, however, that while Morales is a noted soccer fan he has not commented on the offer.
- Newly-elected Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis marked May 17th’s International Day Against Homophobia by hoisting a rainbow flag at his official residence, a move that La Nacion reports was criticized by religious groups in the country. A spokesperson for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, which praised the gesture, told BBC Mundo that it marked the first time the flag had been raised at such a high-level official building.
- The Associated Press profiled a protest organized in Guatemala City on Friday against lawmakers’ recent vote to deny that a genocide took place during the country’s armed conflict. According to the news agency, the “dozens” of participants included some who had lost relatives who had been killed or gone missing during the 36-year civil war.
- Mexico’s largest opposition party, the conservative National Action Party (PAN) has re-elected its current leader, Gustavo Madero, to serve for a second term. Because Madero has worked with Enrique Peña Nieto to pass a number of reforms in recent years, his election is seen as a victory for the president’s agenda. News site Animal Politico notes that the vote was the first opportunity for PAN supporters to directly choose the party’s leader.
- A federal judge in Rio de Janeiro has sparked criticism from religious freedom advocates in the country over a recent decision which effectively found that Afro-Brazilian faiths like Candombla and Umbanda do not constitute religions and are thus not protected from criticism under anti-discrimination laws. As O Dia reports, the judge ruled that they did not meet certain qualifications, citing a lack of a hierarchical structure and a single deity. According to O Globo, public prosecutors will appeal the decision.
- The New York Times profiles the waters of Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay, where the windsurfing and sailing events will take place during the 2016 Summer Olympics and which is known for its notoriously foul stench of sewage. For critics of Brazil’s Olympic preparations, the slow clean-up efforts are yet another addition in a growing list of perceived shortcomings.
- The L.A. Times also looks at Brazil’s World Cup preparations, noting a recent wave of strikes by trade associations and unions across the country, with more planned in the coming days.