OPINION

Opinion: Was the general’s kidnapping in Colombia an 'induced coma'?

Colombian Army Gen. Ruben Dario Alzate, left, reaching to shake hands with a soldier in Bogota, Colombia.

Colombian Army Gen. Ruben Dario Alzate, left, reaching to shake hands with a soldier in Bogota, Colombia.  (AP2014)

The peace talks in Colombia are ready to be resumed in Havana after the “suspended animation” created by the now released General Ruben Dario Alzate, who was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in very contradictory and controversial circumstances on November 16th.

In what can be considered a sign of U.S. support to those negotiations, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Colombia last week to meet with President Juan Manuel Santos.

Now the peace process is ready to be resumed in Havana (...) while the nation remains evenly divided toward the conflict and the prospects of the peace process as conducted by Santos, but with a majority nonetheless hopeful for peace.

- Leopoldo Martinez Nucete

The plot of the general’s kidnapping triggered speculation from all sides of the public opinion spectrum – and the facts disclosed later contributed little to clarifying the impasse, which at one point led Colombian President Santos to unilaterally suspend all peace talks. 

At that time, President Santos said: “The FARC were responsible for this kidnapping, a totally unacceptable kidnapping,” and opponents and supporters of the peace process were quick to weigh in, the most prominent voice being that of former president Alvaro Uribe, a fierce enemy of the peace process, who said that “the terrorists regard the State’s efforts to achieve peace not as generosity but rather as weakness”. 

After the release of General Alzate and his resignation, Santos moved on with the peace dialogue indicating he has turned the page.

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Leading newspapers and other media outlets drew attention to the fact that the General, Commander of “Fuerza de Tarea Titán” (Titan Task Force), was kidnapped, along with Corporal First Class Jorge Rodríguez and lawyer Gloria Urrego, in a remote region in the northeast of Colombia, where the FARC is very active, while he was dressed in civilian clothes and without the appropriate security detail.

Moreover, some media outlets reported the testimony of witnesses in the community, which accounted for a non-violent episode while the general was escorted by what appeared to be unarmed people.

In the midst of great confusion, on November 18th the FARC released a statement admitting they were holding Alzate and those with him hostage “on the basis that they are enemy military personnel on active service in a war zone,” as reported by BBC Mundo. Here it is important to point out that “the armed conflict” is not officially suspended by the ongoing peace talks in Cuba, and that the current status of the Colombian conflict has been recognized as of insurrectional nature. As such, kidnappings of this sort are characterized as “hostilities.”

The details of the general’s release add little to no clarity. Telesur, the Venezuelan government-sponsored Latin American news network, showed pictures of General Alzate posing with guerrilla leaders in what seemed to be a non-violent retention. In his resignation letter the general himself admitted a lack of prudence, which threatened the peace process and contradicted government policy.

Almost a month later, several hypotheses are still floating in the media about the incident. Speculation runs from “isolated hostile actions of undisciplined cells of FARC” that are not in agreement with the peace talks, to “a conspiracy against the peace process,” and even more, “an induced coma” intended to reframe the dialogue.

In all this dust, just one thing seems certain: the general’s explanations are unclear and insufficient. His whereabouts in an area of conflict without any security protocol - in what he defined as an approach to the community to promote social programs - as well as the non-violent circumstances of his retention as a “hostage” by the FARC are far from a traditional kidnapping.

Now the peace process is ready to be resumed in Havana, regardless of the fierce opposition of former president, now Senator Alvaro Uribe, in a nation that remains evenly divided about the conflict and the prospects of a peace process conducted by Santos, but with a majority nonetheless hopeful for peace.

Among the many political and social complex issues emerging from the process is the economic dividend of peace for Colombia.

Freeing the budget of military spending to fund infrastructure investment is critical to spike economic activity in Colombia — currently Colombia military spending doubles the average in the region, accounting for 3.7 percent of its GDP. This blocks any possibility of increasing investment in infrastructure, key to accelerate Colombia’s economic growth while promoting competitiveness and productivity.

However, on the other hand, much argumentation and political debate is expected after the financial package presented recently by the Peace Commission of the Colombian Congress, which estimates at US$45 billion the likely amount of potential investment for the coming years should peace be achieved.  

Indeed, on October 26th, Colombia’s Minister of Finance Mauricio Cardenas defended his fiscal reform with the argument that “the peace has its costs, but much less than the costs of war.”

Cardenas’ fiscal plan raises revenues in the amount of US$ 6,2 billion and contemplates investments in anticipation to the conclusion of the peace talks, by investing US$ 4.5 billion in compensations to the victims of the conflict, and US$ 2.5 billion in rural infrastructure investments.

Colombia’s economic performance is undoubtedly a good one: growth is expected to close above 5 percent in 2014 (projected at 4.5 percent for 2015), fiscal deficit is under control at 2.2 percent of the GDP, with the total debt at 34 percent of the GDP. Nonetheless, the road ahead, as it relates to infrastructure investments, presents a significant challenge. From that perspective the peace process is almost indispensable and, more than that, a rational political move in spite of its undeniable difficulties and risks.

The recent events show that, even when fragile, the peace process will continue its course, with its political detractors defeated once again in spite of critical circumstances such as the controversial “General’s kidnapping.”

Rebuilding trust will not be easy, but is essential if the peace process is to be renewed and existing achievements built on.

Leopoldo Martínez Nucete is a former Venezuelan congressman currently living in Washington, DC, where he is the CEO of the Center for Democracy and Development in the Americas (@cddamericas) and the Chair of the Latino Victory Project National Committee (@LatinoVictoryUS). He tweets at @lecumberry.

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