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.