Colombia’s Last Day of War?

By Aaron T. Bell and Fulton Armstrong

Peace Signing Colombia

Photo Credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Colombia’s half-century-old war entered its final stages yesterday as President Juan Manuel Santos and leaders of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) signed a ceasefire agreement in Havana, but the successful implementation of a comprehensive peace accord still faces several uphill battles.  The five key agenda items of peace talks that began in 2012 have now been agreed upon, and the final details are expected to be hashed out by the time Colombia celebrates its independence day on July 20.  The FARC has pledged that its 7,000 soldiers will enter “Temporary Hamlet Zones of Normalization” once a final accord is signed and finish turning over their weapons to a United Nations mission within 180 days.  After signing the ceasefire, a teary-eyed “Timochenko” – the FARC’s top commander – proclaimed, “May this be the last day of war,” while President Santos celebrated that “We worked for peace in Colombia, a dream that is now becoming reality.”

One major hurdle that remains to a final peace accord is the fulfillment of President Santos’s pledge to subject it to a plebiscite.  In an interview last week, the president cautioned against any notion that a “no” vote will produce a better deal and instead warned that such an outcome would mean a return to war.  Recent polls show that 60 percent of the population says that they’ll vote yes in support of a peace accord, but the Centro Nacional de Consultoría reports that Colombians’ worst fear, which could sink approval, is that one or both sides will fail to meet its commitments.  Another poll suggests that 77 percent of Colombians do not want the FARC to participate in politics, a suggestion that Timochenko has rejected.  Former President Álvaro Uribe and his Centro Democrático party have led the charge against peace talks under the slogan “Yes to peace but not like this,” and they are unlikely to stop now despite Uribe’s pledge yesterday “not to react to the impulse of first impressions.”  Uribe and his supporters have accused Santos in the past of “handing over the country to the FARC,” and 37 percent of Colombians have reported feeling that the government is conceding too much.  They are not entirely alone in this estimate, as even generally neutral observers like Human Rights Watch have suggested that the transitional justice provisions – which will provide reduced sentences to those guerrillas who confess their crimes – let the FARC off the hook.

The signing of a peace agreement between the two sides is indeed historic, but Santos and Timochencko affixing their signatures to the document is just the beginning of another arduous process.  Winning the referendum will require Santos to show vigorous political leadership and enforce greater discipline on his own cabinet team, some of whom have been less than enthusiastic in support of an accord.  Even approval in the plebiscite will of course not immediately resolve the many security challenges facing Colombia.  Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commission for Human Rights in Colombia, has noted that the FARC’s demobilization and disarmament could create a power vacuum in rural areas.  Turf wars over coca cultivation, cocaine processing, and the drug trade in which the FARC has been deeply involved since the 1990s are likely to continue, while neo-paramilitaries will likely to fight for a bigger piece of the pie.  In addition, government negotiations with the smaller Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) have been slow to start.  The international community can help with some of these issues, as it has in supporting the years-long peace process, but the real work will need to be done by Santos and his supporters.  Santos’s presidency and the long-term success of any accords rest on his ability to ensure public support, not only now but in the future, as he enters the final years in office.

June 24, 2016

Colombia’s Peace Talks: The End of the Beginning

By Aaron T. Bell

Americas Quarterly / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Americas Quarterly / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Recent events suggest that, as peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas resume in Cuba later this month, substantial progress toward an agreement is at hand.  Talks were suspended in November when a Colombian general and two lawyers were kidnapped under circumstances that remain unclear, but cooler heads prevailed and the three were quickly released.  The FARC announced an indefinite unilateral cease-fire in late December and, in the first such act taken by either side, acknowledged their responsibility for a 2002 civilian massacre in the town of Bojayá and asked for forgiveness from victims.  President Juan Manuel Santos has been reluctant to ease military pressure on the guerrillas, but the FARC’s show of good faith led him to call on government negotiators last week to prioritize the arrangement of a bilateral cease-fire.  Santos has encouraged negotiators to accelerate talks so that a public referendum on the peace accords can be held concurrent with October’s local elections.

A final agreement may still be several months off as negotiators work through the complexities of victim compensation and a transitional justice system, but the effects of negotiations are already being felt in Colombia.  Observers from the Centro de Recursos para el Análisis de Conflictos reported the lowest level of violence related to the armed conflict in 30 years during the first three weeks of the FARC’s cease-fire. This news was complemented by reports that Colombia’s murder rate hit a 30-year low in 2014, thanks in part to truces brokered among the country’s largest criminal gangs.  The success of the government’s negotiations with the FARC appears to be spilling over into the armed conflict with the ELN guerrillas as well.  At the beginning of 2015 the ELN announced willingness to enter into peace talks like those with the FARC, and they strongly implied that such talks would lead them to lay down their arms.  A six-point agenda for negotiations was publicly announced this past weekend, and a cease-fire may not be far behind.  In economic terms, an end to insurgent violence may spell much-needed relief for Colombia’s oil industry, a frequent target for guerrilla sabotage over the years, which is now reeling from falling oil prices.  Negotiations have also procured European political and financial support for Colombia.  Beginning this month, the European Union will begin funding a five-year, $86 million program to bolster small-scale producers and reduce rural inequality, and other potential funding may result from a European tour by Santos last fall.  Germany pledged $95 million in loans to follow peace agreements, and the EU and several member nations pledged funding for post-conflict reconstruction projects.

While the Santos government and the FARC appear to be entering the endgame of peace negotiations, the process of resolving the underlying conditions that have fueled decades of conflict in Colombia will be long and difficult.  The FARC was unhappy with the government’s unilateral decision to implement a peace referendum, preferring instead a constituent assembly that would give greater representation to traditionally marginalized groups in Colombian society.  Political inclusion is a substantial concern given both Colombia’s history and the attitude of right-wing opponents of negotiations.  Among the groups gearing up for a substantial run in the October elections is the Centro Democrático, the party of former president Álvaro Uribe, which took Santos to a second round of voting in last summer’s presidential elections.  Uribe claimed recently that the FARC – with Santos’s support – is using the threat of terrorism and the allure of peace to take power through elections in 2018 and even eventually establish a “totalitarian government.”  Land reform is another major concern.  Skewed land distribution has traditionally been a major source of social unrest and has worsened over the last 50 years of fighting.  Amnesty International and Oxfam have identified serious obstacles to resolving the problem and it will be difficult to ensure that large multinationals won’t benefit disproportionately from redistribution schemes.  The government and the guerrillas both deserve praise for their progress, but winning a lasting peace will require continued cooperation in reforming an ingrained system of inequality and exclusion.

January 20, 2015