South America

President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia

President Juan Manuel Santos will receive the 2017 Chatham House Prize on Thursday in recognition of his role in bringing an end to the 50-year-old armed conflict in Colombia. But it is often forgotten that he rose to international prominence on a different issue: battling the cocaine trade which came close to destroying his country.

In an interview with The World Today in 2012 he spoke of his success in containing the FARC rebels, who for decades had used profits from the cocaine trade to fund their insurrection. He expressed deep doubts about the ‘war on drugs’ launched by President Nixon in 1971 which he said had caused Colombia huge loss of life while failing to eradicate the source of the problem – the global market for cocaine.    

Responsibility, he said, should be shared with the consuming countries (such as the US) where ‘drug trafficking money is laundered or which sell weapons that end up in the hands of criminal organizations.’

The rebellion has raged for so long that it is difficult to appreciate the scale of Santos’s achievement in bringing it to an end. An article in The World Today in 1963 adds some context. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm visited Colombia, and predicted that the countryside would soon erupt. The FARC rebellion was launched the next year.

As a Marxist, Hobsbawm was looking for a revolution which would liberate South America’s peasants and urban poor. He rightly predicted that Cuba, where Fidel Castro toppled the US-supported Batista dictatorship in 1959, was too small and isolated to set the continent alight.

‘Colombia is a country which can make a decisive difference to the future of Latin America, whereas Cuba is not likely to do so,’ he wrote. ‘It is a rich country with a potentially balanced all-round economy. Its situation makes it the strategic link between the Caribbean and Central America and at least the Andean mass of the South American continent. And it would be far harder to bring pressure to bear upon a Colombian revolution than upon a Cuban one.’

Here is the story of how the guerrillas were brought to the negotiating table and the (invisible) role of the Obama administration.  And a look at the obstacles in the way of the peace agreement. The Colombian revolution is now off the agenda, though the peace process will be beset with problems for years to come.

Read the full interview from 2012