Behind Colombia´s Havana handshake

Colombia is used to patching up its oil pipelines. Anti-government rebels routinely bombed pipelines and other oil facilities as part of a violent armed conflict of more than a half of century. It was bad, but it was largely predictable.

Yesterday´s historic handshake in Cuba between Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and rebel leader Rodrigo Londoño, (alias Timoshenko) ushers in a period that is challenging to assess. This is not likely to be the beginning of the end of the conflict, as the Colombian government says. Rather it is the start of a period of deep uncertainty and division that makes it harder for oil companies to plan ahead.

Colombians are polarized over the terms of a proposed peace agreement that the government hopes to sign with leaders of the Farc rebel group within six months. Now in their final stretch, the peace talks hosted by Havana since late 2012 have already yielded a unilateral cease-fire since July, allowing state-controlled Ecopetrol to restore crippled pipelines.

But there are multiple hurdles ahead. The eventual agreement that Santos has said will spark an economic windfall will be subject to a popular referendum. Politically conservative Colombians, embodied by outspoken former president Alvaro Uribe, reject what they consider slap-on-the-wrist punishment for Farc leaders. Government supporters say the deal offers the best chance to transition the rebels into peaceful political life.

Even if the Farc demobilizes, the potential for menacing splinter groups remains a threat. So too the separate ELN rebel group that wants natural resources to remain in state hands. Bogota could open a separate formal peace process with the ELN in Ecuador soon.

Colombia faces external threats as well. Separate bilateral talks took place in Caracas this week over Venezuela´s controversial closure of its western border. Officially aimed at stamping out food and fuel smuggling and paramilitary and drug violence, Venezuela´s progressive shutdowns of frontier crossings and aerial military incursions into Colombia have opened a second front for Bogota. Thousands of Colombians have been forced out of Venezuela. The Farc is known to operate in northeastern Colombia near the once bustling border.

The chances of outright war are slim. But the five-week-old border dispute shows that Bogota cannot afford to dismiss turmoil inside Venezuela, where the collapse in oil prices has deepened an economic crisis and escalated a government crackdown on dissent.

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