Colombia: Pope Francis Appeals Directly to the People

By Christian Wlaschütz*

Pope in Popemobile with people surrounding him.

Pope Francis in Colombia last week. / Christian Wlaschütz

By appealing directly to the Colombian people to open their hearts to the hard work of forging lasting peace during his visit last week, Pope Francis avoided direct confrontation with opponents of the peace process but put new pressure on them to cease obstructionism and allow full implementation of the accords.  Since the Congress approved the revised version of the peace agreement between the government and the FARC in December 2016, there has been important progress on the formal level of the implementation of the peace accords.  The FARC surrendered its weapons and started its transformation from military group to political party of the same name.  However, as the country prepares to enter a new phase – with the launch of transitional justice processes under the Special Jurisdiction for Peace and the Truth Commission – peace remains a concept that has still not achieved public enthusiasm.  As I have argued previously (here and here), one of the reasons is that common people do not perceive the relevance of the peace process for themselves and lack a sense of participation in it.  The Pope’s five-day visit, concluding last Sunday, seemed intended to address exactly these challenges.

Under the motto “Let’s make the First Step,” Pope Francis emphasized the importance of reconciliation, peace, truth, justice, and the “culture of encounter” on a spiritual level that transcends the struggles of daily politics.  Millions of Colombians, regardless of political affiliation, turned out to hear Francis’s non-partisan message of peace.  In Villavicencio, a center of armed violence during the war, 6,000 victims and former combatants publicly attested to their path from suffering towards active involvement in society.  Having found healing, forgiveness, and repentance, many now work as psychologists, human rights defenders, or social leaders.  Millions around the country watched the event on TV and saw that reconciliation is not an easy path – one without justice or truth – but includes these elements.  In Cartagena, the Pontiff emphasized two other essential components of peace: social justice and human rights.

Francis managed to combine gestures, massive events, and declarations to emphasize Colombia’s opportunity to leave the violent past behind and open a new chapter of history.  His key message – that it is possible to live together in peace – reached many millions.  In encounters with the poor, indigenous, Afro-Colombians, victims of conflict, and people with special needs, he drove home that social inclusion is a prerequisite for real change.  He emphasized that the peace process “is not a process for minorities,” but rather all of society.  Changing the political dynamics around the peace accords will take time, but the Pope has clearly invited detractors to change their attitude and support the process.  One news commentator hinted at the sort of awareness that would require.  Reporting on Francis’s visit to San Francisco, one of the most marginalized sectors of Cartagena, she said, “This is a Cartagena that we do not know. Thanks to this visit we see the other Cartagena.”  Maybe Colombians will also see the “other Colombia” now.

September 14, 2017

Christian Wlaschütz is a political scientist, independent mediator, and international consultant who has lived and worked in Colombia, in particular in conflict zones in the fields of transitional justice, reconciliation, and communitarian peace-building.

Venezuela: Stalemate in a War of Attrition?

By Michael McCarthy*

33792960765_7a1d866299_h

Members of Venezuela’s opposition march against President Maduro at a demonstration in April 2017. / A. Davey / Flickr / Creative Commons

The pace of provocation and counter-provocation in Venezuela has reached a new high, and there does not seem to be a stabilizing force that can induce a de-escalation.  It’s unclear if the country’s power struggle is experiencing a new cycle in its multi-year confrontation, or if two months of protests mark the start of a downward spiral that will plunge the country into even deeper crisis.  Neither the government nor opposition appears near the point of exhaustion that would make efforts at a meaningful negotiated settlement fruitful.  An examination of their agendas, moreover, paints a picture of an intractable conflict.

  • President Nicolás Maduro is in raw survival mode – perhaps driven by fear of disgrace as the man who lost the Chávez legacy entrusted to him – and is forcing a rewrite of the Constitution as he lurches toward outright dictatorship. He deeply resents that the opposition never acknowledged the legitimacy of his election, and he was shaken when jeered and egged at a public rally recently.  He has condoned violence by his party’s vigilantes and the Guardia Nacional, but almost certainly grasps its political cost, including within the government and military.  Faced with the certain prospect of persecution by an opposition-dominated government, he probably sees no incentive to negotiate his denouement.
  • The opposition remains heterogeneous and is united almost exclusively in the fervent belief that Maduro – through evil and incompetence – is destroying the country. Government repression and their own self-inflicted wounds have precluded development of a sophisticated strategic planning capacity.  Although opponents’ preferred option is to remove Maduro at the ballot box, some also apparently believe that ratcheting up the violence will force the military – reluctant to intervene – to lean on Maduro to depart.
  • The senior ranks of the military, compromised by corruption and narco-trafficking during the Chávez-Maduro era, show no signs of wavering, but discontent among field-grade officers at the Regional Commands – who will have to serve under a successor government – may become palpable during the military promotion season that formally concludes July 5. As the Guardia Nacional soils its reputation, the military wants to stay off the streets as long as possible.  There’s no evidence of sympathy with the opposition; their primary concern is avoiding being part of the bloodshed.  How the military would orchestrate a post-Maduro era is unknowable.
  • The country’s economic and financial crises have devastated oil production, making it impossible for Maduro to pump his way out of the crisis and increasing his reliance on foreign capital. Indebting itself further at an extremely high cost, the government bought some time by selling $2.8 billion in bonds to Goldman Sachs – through a counterparty – for $865 million in cash.
  • The sectores populares are highly agitated but lack leadership. The working class has largely fallen into poverty, now estimated at 80 percent nationally, and neighborhoods previously home to chavismo’s base have shown tolerance for the opposition and outright disdain for the ruling coalition, including knocking down statues of Hugo Chávez.

Neither the government nor opposition has yet shown concern that its resources and energy are nearing exhaustion – and the military, so far, is not prepared to tell one or the other to give up the struggle.  As long as both sides think that they can break the other, moreover, the prospects for either regime collapse or a mediated settlement seem unlikely, and it is hard to imagine the emergence of a stabilizing force that can mitigate conflict.  External forces may try to facilitate a resolution but are unlikely to succeed.  Brazil’s corruption scandals have removed it as a player; UNASUR’s failures have rendered it irrelevant; and Maduro preempted any final OAS censuring by announcing withdrawal from the organization (though his foreign minister will attend its General Assembly this month).  Washington continues to rely on sanctions – most recently freezing the assets of eight members of Venezuela’s Supreme Court – but seems reluctant to get more deeply involved, and given the turmoil that characterizes the Trump administration, it may in any event be incapable of doing so.  Absent the emergence of a viable formula within Venezuela to overcome the costly stalemate, the war of attrition between regime and opposition will likely continue without meaningful involvement of external actors.

June 5, 2017

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.  He is International Associate for Venebarómetro polling and publishes Caracas Wire, a newsletter on Venezuela and South America.

Colombia Reconciliation: A Multi-faceted Task

By Christian Wlaschütz *

U.S._Special_Envoy_for_the_Colombian_Peace_Process_Bernard_Aronson_Addresses_Conflict_Victims,_Ex-_Combatants,_and_At-Risk_Youth_Speak_About_a_Job-_Training_Program_at_the_Escuela_Taller

Last September, a U.S. delegation addressed conflict victims and ex-combatants in Cartagena, Colombia, as part of a transnational effort to encourage the peace process. Many Colombians are distrustful of the “transnational justice” provisions of the peace accord. / The U.S. State Department / Wikimedia / Public Domain

The term “reconciliation” is now omnipresent in Colombia’s post-conflict strategies – and helps attract tens of millions of dollars in aid – but its meaning is still vague.  The intention is more than rebuilding interpersonal relationships and bringing former enemies together to embrace in public.  Political reconciliation is predominantly about social change, and in Colombia that means mending relations between the state and its citizens.  Pablo de Greiff, a Colombia human rights advocate now serving as a UN Special Rapporteur, highlights the importance of “civic trust,” by which he means the realistic expectation that state actors have to act within the law’s boundaries.

Congressional debate on aspects of the peace accord has already demonstrated broad discord on and aggressive resistance from multiple sectors of society.

  • Causing most tensions are the “transitional justice” and “special jurisdiction” provisions, which deal with allegations of rights abuses by both the FARC and the state. It is the centerpiece of efforts to achieve political reconciliation but is also the most hotly contested.
  • Even more difficult will be overcoming the widespread distrust of citizens toward the political system, as expressed by the huge rates of abstention in momentous decisions such as the peace plebiscite in October (63 percent). This distrust is caused by a sense of a lack of representation, a lack of government efficiency, and, more generally, the perception that political actors lack the will to change a system that suits the needs of a privileged elite.
  • The assassination of dozens of social leaders so far this year further fuels citizen distrust, as it reminds them of the initial phase of the extermination of the Patriotic Union – the last attempt to transform the FARC into a political actor some 30 years ago. The violence has raised questions about the state’s willingness or ability to protect civilians who are committed to social change.  It further fuels fear that the territories evacuated by the FARC will simply be taken by other armed actors.
  • Corruption poses a vexing challenge. The peace accord seems to leave open the possibility that corruption will be within the mandate of the Truth Commission, but the result is unclear.  Corruption gets to the root of the armed conflict and its persistence.  It includes the use, or abuse, of public money for private benefit.  For people in rural areas and those who live in marginalized areas of the major cities peace has simply no tangible meaning when there is no basic health system because the social insurance company collapsed because of the flow of resources into private pockets.  The same applies to education and the public transport system, most notably in Bogotá.

In an almost prophetic intervention at the Congress in late November, Todd Howland, the representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stressed the urgency of implementing the peace accord in areas previously controlled by the FARC, where 2 million citizens depend on social investment and measures to increase security in these areas.  In a country characterized by enormous estrangement between the citizens and the state, reconciliation depends on representatives being willing to pursue policies based on people’s needs.  The result of this responsiveness is new trust.

March 28, 2017

Christian Wlaschütz is an independent mediator and international consultant who has lived and worked in Colombia, in particular in conflict zones in the fields of disarmament; demobilization and reintegration; and reconciliation and communitarian peace-building.

Latin America United Against Violence in Gaza

By Aaron T. Bell

Sergio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Sergio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Israel’s assault on Gaza this summer provoked sharp criticism from Latin American governments.  Condemnation came not only from Cuba, a long-time critic of Israel, and from Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, which have been without diplomatic ties to Israel since cutting them after previous conflicts in Gaza in 2009 and 2010.  This summer’s UN-estimated 1,500 civilian deaths also provoked outrage from center-left governments, as Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Peru all withdrew their ambassadors.  At the Mercosur summit at the end of July, Brazil, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina issued a joint statement in which they criticized Israel’s “disproportionate use of force…which has almost exclusively affected civilians.”  And one of the largest popular demonstrations worldwide against the Israeli action took place in Chile, home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian descendants.

Latin American interest in Israeli-Palestinian affairs is deeply rooted in the past.  Waves of immigration beginning a century ago have made the region home to the largest Palestinian diaspora outside the Arab world.  Latin American governments provided crucial support for the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine that led to the creation of the state of Israel, but they roundly condemned the occupation of the Gaza Strip 20 years later.  In the Cold War era, Israel provided military hardware to rightwing military regimes in the region while the Palestine Liberation Organization, more leftist than Islamic in its revolutionary views, lent political and economic support to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.  Contemporary Latin American governments have taken a balanced approach in their relations with Israel and the Palestinians.  All but Colombia, Mexico, and Panama have recognized a Palestinian state based on national borders prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and trade with Israel has flourished.  Brazil is the top destination for Israeli exports, totaling over $1 billion per year.  In addition, Israel signed free trade agreements with Mercosur in 2007 and 2010; became an official observer to the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) in 2013; and in May 2014 approved a four-year, $14 million plan to boost trade with the PA nations and Costa Rica.  Israel’s recent efforts to further trade in Latin America ironically developed out of a desire to shrug off some of its dependency on Europe, where criticism of Israeli policy has become widespread and boycotts of Israeli goods are being organized by advocates of the Palestinian cause.

This summer’s fighting in Gaza chilled diplomatic relations between Latin American governments and Israel.  The Israeli Foreign Ministry described the withdrawal of Latin America ambassadors as a “hasty” decision that would only encourage Hamas radicalism, and it struck a nerve in Brazil when dismissing its “moral relativism” as an example of “why Brazil, an economic and cultural giant, remains a diplomatic dwarf.”  But both Israel and Latin America stand to gain from stronger economic ties, and with the exception of Chile’s suspension of trade talks, there are no pending signs that economic relations will suffer further now that this round of fighting in Gaza has come to an end.  The significance of this summer’s events lies instead in the autonomous decision by Latin American governments of all political stripes to act in favor of peaceful conflict resolution and the protection of civilians enveloped by the violence of war.  The Assad regime’s massacre of its own citizens in Syria in recent years provoked a more reticent condemnation from Latin America’s center-left governments and regional blocs, which backed a negotiated solution to the conflict while strongly opposing the possibility of foreign military intervention.  Without the specter of a wider conflict looming over this summer’s Gaza crisis, Latin American governments seized the opportunity to stake out a firmer position.  The region’s reaction to future atrocities – which may come sooner rather than later as the US prepares to battle the “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq – will show how durable this new approach will be.

Colombia: Four More Years for Santos

By Eric Hershberg

Photo Credit: eltiempo.com / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Photo Credit: eltiempo.com / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Incumbent center-right president Juan Manuel Santos emerged triumphant from yesterday’s second round of presidential balloting in Colombia – giving momentum to his peace talks with the FARC and his efforts to continue improving the country’s democracy.  He defeated challenger Oscar Iván Zuluaga, of the rightwing Union of the Democratic Center, which is led by former President Álvaro Uribe, a polarizing figure remembered in Washington as George W. Bush’s favorite Latin American leader.  Santos prevailed by a clear margin of five percentage points, and Colombia’s technically impeccable vote-counting process virtually ensures that the outcome will not be disputed.  The turnout of 2.4 million additional voters yesterday reduced voter abstention from 60 percent in the first round to a still-worrisome 52 percent.  Regional divisions among the electorate were striking: in some areas long plagued by Colombia’s civil conflict, the President won overwhelmingly, and he achieved substantial gains in Bogota, winning a strong majority, thanks in large measure to the endorsement of leading leftist politicians.  By contrast, in the central and southern parts of the country, particularly in Antioquia, the bastion of Uribismo, the opposition candidate garnered nearly two thirds of the vote.

The candidates’ campaigns focused on the polarizing issue of peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which Santos launched early in his administration and have proceeded slowly but steadily in Havana.  The President sought a second term in order to complete the negotiations and end a conflict that some estimate has taken more than 200,000 lives and caused devastating human and material damage over the past half century.  By contrast, Zuluaga, taking his cue from his mentor and chief advocate Uribe – who had spent Santos’ first term and virtually all of the campaign vilifying the President as a traitor for having launched the talks – changed approach in the second round and suggested that he, too, sought peace but would impose far more stringent preconditions before talks.  Most commentators viewed his shift as suggesting a return to the Uribe-era policy of crushing the insurgency before speaking with it.  Ironically, polls showed an electorate that was barely interested in the talks and far more concerned with other issues as elsewhere in Latin America: citizen security, unemployment and public services (such as health, education and transportation) were at the forefront of voters’ concerns.  On these fronts the two candidates offered little to distinguish themselves from one another.  Further assessments of the voting data will indicate whether this may account for low voter participation in an election that outsiders perceived as momentous.

While commentary in Washington and abroad has focused on the implications of the election for the peace process, the longer term consequences may lie elsewhere, particularly in the robustness of Colombia’s democratic institutions.  We will never know the extent to which Zuluaga would have been a pawn of Uribe, but suspicions were widespread that he was to the former President as Dmitry Medvedev was to Vladimir Putin.  Thus, beyond potential reversal of the negotiations for peace, a Zuluaga presidency might have entailed a return to authoritarian practices that had undermined Colombia’s democracy under Uribe and that Santos did much to rectify.  Although he is a staunchly establishment figure, Santos has advanced the spirit and letter of the 1991 Constitution, a progressive charter that emphasized separation of powers, rule of law, a strong and accountable judiciary, as well as minority representation and unwavering respect for human rights and accountability for abuses.  Santos also embodied a spirit of reasoned deliberation both at home and in matters abroad.  His pragmatic dealings with the often troublesome regime in neighboring Venezuela have been a far cry from the saber rattling that the rightwing authoritarian populist Uribe directed toward his similarly bombastic leftwing authoritarian counterpart Hugo Chávez.  Four more years of Santos may or may not produce tangible advances on the issues that seem to preoccupy the Colombian electorate – jobs, public safety and services – but they probably will ensure continued strengthening of democratic institutions and continued opportunities for Colombia to join with sensible governments elsewhere in the region to cooperate productively regarding Venezuela and other regional concerns. It may also pave the way towards a lasting peace and some degree of reconciliation for a country long plagued by civil war.