-OpEd-

BOGOTÁ — On Sunday, Colombians will decide whether to ratify a peace deal that makes the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, lay down their arms. But if that happens, what will the future of FARC look like? Will it become a socialist party like the one that has driven Venezuela into an economic crisis?

It's a frightening prospect if FARC's top leader, Rodrigo "Timochenko" Londoño, dons the presidential sash. It conjures up images of thousands of Colombians queuing, like their Venezuelan neighbors right now, for eggs, bread and toilet paper while newborns are placed in cardboard boxes due to a dearth of hospital beds. Are we about to dig our own grave by voting to approve the peace deal?

In 1998, Hugo Chávez won Venezuela's presidential elections with 56% of the vote, breaking up the two-party system the country had had since the end of a military regime in 1958. A portion of Venezuelans saw Chávez, who died in 2013, as a radical leftist, backward in many ways, a man who despised democracy and would do anything to hold on to power. But the majority in Venezuela did not see him that way. They didn't ostracize him for his failed coup attempt in 1992. Indeed, many came to take a romantic view of him, seeing him as a kind of Robin Hood fighting on the behalf of ordinary people.

In a 1998 interview with Univisión's Jorge Ramos (a senior journalist more recently thrown out of a Donald Trump news conference), Chávez lied that he would hand over power after his five-year term ended. Staring straight at the camera, he said, "I am not the devil.” He added that "Cuba is a dictatorship" but said he couldn't condemn its leaders because countries have a right to determine their own fate.

Is FARC's future leadership headed toward such a dictatorship?

In 1998, Venezuela was going through a deep recession. When Chávez swore the oath of office the next year, a barrel of oil cost about $19. This rose to $66 by 2006, then touched a shocking high of $124 in 2008. Floating in an ocean of cash, Chávez's regime allowed itself the luxury of despising and intimidating private firms, and letting them leave. The curse of oil money was that it turned the Chávez establishment into a powerful mafia that felt invincible.

A 2014 protest in Caracas — Photo: Carlos Diaz

We do not have that kind of oil in Colombia. But we do have plenty of drug money. FARC has been one of the chief beneficiaries of drug trafficking in recent years. It's conceivable that FARC has billions of dollars stashed away, enough to buy itself a presidential election result.

Venezuela isn't the only example of left-wing authoritarianism in Latin America. In Brazil, many cabinet ministers and leader Lula da Silva of the former government have been charged with stealing money from state oil firm Petrobras. In Argentina, allies of former presidents Nestor and Cristina Kirchner have gone from being bank cashiers to building construction empires. Most hilarious perhaps is Nicaragua, where a dead man is now the speaker of parliament. Except in Ecuador, left-wing governments in Latin America have been failing (even if the right-wing hasn't fared much better).

The political party that could emerge from the disarmed FARC will likely have a presidential candidate in 2022. The challenge at the time will be not to denounce the arrival of Castro-style communism but to defeat their party at the polls. That is, to say, with political debate, not gunshots.