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.

Local Ownership in Peacebuilding, Colombian style

By Angelika Rettberg*

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“Colombian peace is our American peace.” / urban_lenny / Flickr / Creative Commons

Amid the increased political juggling in Colombia as the government’s peace deal with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) has advanced, one key lesson is that the nature of “local ownership” will have an impact on its success or failure. After the razor-thin victory of the agreement’s opponents in the referendum on October 2 propelled the country into uncertainty, its proponents – buttressed by the informal deadline created by the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to President Juan Manuel Santos on December 10 – tried a different track. Instead of calling for a new referendum, as many expected, the government appears to have learned its lesson about the perils of direct democracy and sent the new agreement to Congress, where it was approved by an undisputed majority in both houses. A Constitutional Court ruling on December 13 gave Congress fast-track authority to approve required changes in the law, paving the way for implementation. Meanwhile, FARC fighters have begun moving toward the more than 20 camps in which complete disarmament is expected to conclude by June 2017.

The country’s shifting approach to the accord has been caused by uneven local ownership. As scholars and practitioners alike underscore, broad participation in transitional countries must be involved in order to achieve sustainable peace. To avoid difficulties such as those experienced by Guatemala, where many felt the agreement was imposed by international actors, societies need to feel that agreements and the resulting commitments have been developed bottom-up, or at least with domestic actors. The Colombian process was touted as one “by Colombians for Colombians.” International participation was intentionally kept to a low profile and key players in the negotiations were all Colombians. But when the results of the October referendum temporarily pushed the country back to square one – “Nada está acordado” – it became clear that local ownership in this case had a broader meaning: Paradoxically, submitting the agreement to the popular will did not cause collective responsibility behind it to surge but rather gave a boost to people’s sense that they had the democratic right to reject the deal altogether. Similarly, despite the actions of Congress and the Constitutional Court, debate on how the agreement will be translated into action is taking place within and among the domestic institutions, including the Presidency, Congress, the courts, and several control organisms.

Colombia’s peace deal has powerfully posed the question not of whether to include popular opinion in peace deals, but how to do so in the most constructive way. The result will be very much a reflection of the Colombian people’s and their institutions’ capabilities to negotiate and establish priorities and to design policy accordingly. After all, peace is a public policy. The Colombian case thus holds many lessons for peacebuilding in general, and for the potential tensions and dilemmas needed to balance peace, majoritarian democracy, public opinion, and justice. The agreement itself may turn into a moving target as different sectors on all sides of the debate seek to steer implementation toward their interests. Regardless of what happens, the quality of “local ownership” will be central to determining the shapes and contents – and the durability – of Colombian peace.

December 22, 2016

* Angelika Rettberg is a Professor of Political Science at La Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá.

Success of the Implementation of the Peace Accord Depends on Real Participation

By Christian Wlaschütz*

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A march for peace in Colombia after the failure of the October 2016 plebiscite. / Leon Hernandez / Flickr / Creative Commons

The same thing that caused the Colombian government to fail to win the plebiscite on its peace agreement with the FARC in October – a deficient understanding of participation – could complicate implementation of the version of the agreement approved by the Congress last week.  Congressional approval on November 30 is occasion for joy and expectation, but it is also a moment for reflection.  That failure was caused not only by disagreements about political participation and justice issues, but also by the government’s consistently deficient understanding of the meaning of participation in its broader sense, beyond politics, and an over-reliance on the desirability of “peace” in the absence of tangible benefits.  Since negotiations began in 2012, several partial accords on issues such as land reform, political participation, and victims were achieved and publicized.  Unlike the negotiations between the government of former President Uribe and the paramilitary groups a decade ago, there was clarity about the process, the results of the specific negotiations, and the way forward.  President Santos’s decision to submit the final accord to a plebiscite, however, changed the public dynamic significantly and revealed several shortcomings in the government’s strategy regarding communication and participation.

  • Participation has been inadequately understood as a space for the public to be informed and to listen – rather than for the government to listen. Massive public events gave the political elite the opportunity to speak about the process, with only a few moments for the listeners to ask questions.  While many written proposals were submitted to the negotiation process, no comment or feedback was ever given.  This one-way communication did not help the public balance the benefits and costs of the peace process, and there was an enormous gap between the informed, mostly urban circles of academics, organized civil society, and other political and economic actors and the people in the urban and rural peripheries of the country.
  • The distance between elites who negotiated “peace” and the very poor living conditions of many people on the ground transformed peace into an abstract term void of tangible significance. Talk of peace dividends lacked a real connection to people’s everyday experience of corruption, deficient state services, and increasing insecurity.  The high abstention rate in the plebiscite – 63 percent –is clear evidence of the disconnect.
  • Indeed, “peace” has remained a distant objective claimed by many generations of Colombians. Since almost nobody has real experience with what peace is like, how it feels and changes life, the motivation to make deals on things such as justice in exchange was limited.  In contrast, terms such as impunity or privileges for criminals have an authentic meaning based on experience, helping the NO campaign discredit the peace accord.

Despite the Congressional approval, enthusiasm for the peace process has waned in comparison to two months ago, when the first version was solemnly signed in Cartagena.  Even though no plebiscite was legally required on either version, the lack of a second plebiscite has left a bitter taste behind – as if the accord were pushed through despite popular rejection.  Also troubling is a wave of assassinations and threats against civil society leaders.  According to the Jesuit Research Center CINEP, 31 leaders have been killed in the last three months; the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights counts 57 assassinations in the course of this year.

The legitimacy and success of implementation of the accord will depend on more authentic participatory methods to plan and implement the politically controversial issues of reintegration, land reform, justice, and the creation of a political party by the FARC.  Real participation – with space for exchange, debate, and the certainty of having a stake in the process – would foster shared responsibility for the successful implementation of the accords.  It would also help the people to grasp the benefits of peace and, therefore, the need to make compromises.  The contents of the accord are sufficiently comprehensive to end the armed conflict; whether or not it also helps to transform a structurally unequal society will depend to a great extent on the way participation is defined.  Only with broad participation will the communities protect and support the peace process.

December 6, 2016

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.

Colombia: University Professors Appeal for post-Referendum Solution

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

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At a march for peace in Bogotá, Colombia, a woman holds a sign that states, “We are the generation of peace.” / Agencia Prensa Rural / Flickr / Creative Commons

A group of Colombian university professors have organized an appeal to their colleagues in and outside the country to sign a petition “requesting an effective solution without delay” to overcome the impasse created by rejection of the peace accord on October 2.  The text of the petition, which currently has more than 1,700 cosigners, is as follows:

[We] university professors, from different disciplines, universities, and regions, join our voices with those underscoring the urgent need to reach, as soon as possible, a final Accord to end the conflict with the FARC.  Delay poses enormous risks.  It is essential to set, with all urgency, an agenda for talks limited to points requiring discussion, with concrete and viable proposals for modifying the existing text.  Reflecting the extremely close results in the October 2 plebiscite, the agenda should address the concerns of the No voters, who won the vote, while respecting the voice of the equally numerous Yes voters, who supported a text that cannot be wholly reevaluated, as well as those who did not speak at the polls.

The result of the plebiscite on Sunday [2 October] provides the unique opportunity to adjust the existing Accord in a way that draws a majority of society.  Capitalizing on that opportunity is the responsibility of all sides:  the FARC, the representatives of No, and those of Yes.  The plebiscite leaves no doubt – and the mobilizations in the streets and social media confirm – that society demands that all be flexible in their positions.  That’s what the youth demand as they convoke marches and other actions to push a quick Agreement, and which we support without hesitation.

The professors are an important voice of society and, as the statement explicitly states, of young people throughout the country who aspire to have a peaceful future.  The statement dodges specifics on what needs to be changed in the accord, but its assumption that sufficient pressure can be brought on all parties, including those who opposed the accord, to find common ground is credible.  Appeals such as this – unprecedented in the sheer number as well as in the wide range of institutions, disciplines, and regions that are represented – will be a good test of the capacity of Colombian civil society, such as the Academy, to push compromise, and for others, such as the economic elites, to achieve compromise.  Agreement may emerge, for example, to move discussion of certain social issues, such as those that riled some religious groups, into another venue so they aren’t an obstacle to agreement on war-and-peace issues.  The professors have their finger on the pulse of the nation and grasp the underlying political, economic, and social drivers of peace – and their optimism that neither side will come to a new negotiating table with dealbreakers is probably more warranted than anyone else’s.

Click here to see the original Spanish version of the petition.

October 14, 2016

Colombia: Peace by Pieces

By Angelika Rettberg*

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Photo Credit: Government of Venezuela / Public Domain.

Despite challenges ahead, the Colombian state’s confrontation with one of the longest active revolutionary groups in the Western Hemisphere appears likely to reach closure by December.  As Colombian writer Héctor Abad has said, the peace agreement preliminary signed on August 24 is long, imprecise, often ambiguous, and tedious – certainly not a piece of entertaining literature – but it is the most eagerly awaited, downloaded, shared, and controversial official document in recent Colombian history.  The signatures of Colombian President Santos and FARC leader “Timochenko” are still pending, as is the result of a national plebiscite, to be held on October 2.

  • Humberto de la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator, defined the agreement as the “best possible” – a lukewarm description that fits well a process that has been rather anti-climactic. President Santos, who started the peace process and staked his reelection (which he barely won) on it two years ago, was more emotional and said, “Today, August 24th, we can say that hope has become reality.”
  • The agreement has already made permanent a cease-fire between the two sides. FARC fighters have begun to gather in the areas in which they will hand in their weapons and await the initiation of transitional justice proceedings.

Even if “yes” wins in the upcoming plebiscite – as surveys now predict – this peace by pieces presents challenges.  The accord has accomplished more than any Colombian process before and, by many normative international and academic standards, has been better designed and more professionally negotiated than any other Colombian accord.  It does not seem, however, to awaken most Colombians’ enthusiasm.  A generalized apathy or, in many cases, open disapproval of the negotiations can be linked to the absence of a sense of conflict-related crisis, especially in urban areas, where there has been a steady decline in battle-related casualties for years.  In addition, as the World Bank and international media have reported, Colombia’s economic performance has been steadily improving.  No longer the Andean problem case, Colombia is now a preferred destination for international investment in Latin America.  The “paradox of plenty, Colombian style” – success in promoting security and investment amid conflict resulting – has ended up eroding support of peace negotiations.

International support for several peace-building tasks will not translate into enormous amounts of desperately needed resources.  FARC demobilization, victims’ reparations, and addressing the needs of the most conflict-affected regions of the country will carry a big price tag for years to come.  Most economic and political resources for implementing the agreements will need to be raised domestically, and local authorities and communities will be increasingly reluctant to prioritize the needs of conflict-related social groups.  In addition, much needed fiscal reform will further affect political support for the government.  A core group of economic elites have backed negotiations unconditionally and have been well represented at the table.  However, the costs and vagaries of the implementation process will strain the support of peace´s crucial allies.  In this context, it will be difficult for any leading candidate to fully endorse the agreements in the upcoming presidential election of 2018.  Considering these limitations, not only the peace agreement, but also the resulting change, may only be “the best possible.”

September 7, 2016

* Angelika Rettberg is Associate Professor in the Political Science Department, Universidad de los Andes, in Bogotá.

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

Latin America Sees Little That’s “Great” about U.S. Caudillo

By Aaron T. Bell*

Trump Latin America

Photo Credit: Maialisa/Pixabay/Public Domain (modified) and NASA/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Donald Trump’s presumptive nomination as the Republican Party’s candidate for president is raising fears among Latin Americans that the United States could close the door on them, while also provoking self-reflection about the region’s own potential to produce a Donald of its own.  Mexico has borne the brunt of Mr. Trump’s hostility for “beating us economically” and “sending people that have a lot of problems.”  He has proposed imposing steep tariffs on Mexico, restricting its access to visas, and forcing it to pay for a border wall.  Gustavo Madero, former president of the Partido Acción Nacional, denounced him as a “venom-spitting psychopath,” while members of Mexico’s Partido de la Revolución Democrática organized a social media campaign – #MXcontraTrump – to rebut Mr. Trump’s attacks.  Mexican President Peña Nieto has pledged to stay out of U.S. electoral politics and work with whomever is elected, but he rejected any notion that Mexico would pay for a wall and compared Mr. Trump’s rhetoric to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini’s.  In addition to initiating a public relations campaign to promote the positive effects of U.S.-Mexican relations, Peña Nieto replaced his ambassador to the United States, who was criticized for soft-pedaling Mr. Trump’s comments, with Carlos Sada, an experienced diplomat with a reputation for toughness.

Other nations have joined in the criticism while looking inward as well:

  • Latin American critics have compared Trump’s populism to that of Venezuelan Presidents Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, and former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In Colombia, a member of the Partido Verde described former President Álvaro Uribe’s call for civil resistance to peace negotiations with the FARC as a “Donald Trump-like proposal.”  In Lucia, Prime Minister Kenny Anthony accused opposition leader Allen Chastenet of “fast becoming the Donald Trump of St. Lucian politics” for resorting to the “politics of hate and divisiveness.”
  • While worrying what might happen if immigrants to the United States are forced to return home, the editorial page of Guatemala’s La Hora has raised the issue of the long-term wisdom of relying on remittances. Meanwhile Argentina’s Nueva Sociedad used attention to Trump’s immigrant comments to analyze restrictive immigration policies within Latin America.
  • Some political observers see Mr. Trump’s rise as a warning of the danger of divisive politics. In Colombia’s El Tiempo, Carlos Caballero Argáez wrote that polarization and anti-government discourse in Washington paved the way for a “strong man” like Trump, and cautioned that something similar could happen in Colombia.  In El Salvador, Carlos G. Romero in La Prensa Gráfica attributed Trump’s success to his ability to connect with the working class, and warned that his country’s own parties risk facing a Trump lest they make similar connections.

Much of Latin America’s take on Trump mirrors that of opponents in the United States: they recognize that his support reflects the frustration of those who feel cut out from the benefits of globalization and ignored by political elites of all stripes; they reject his anti-immigrant and misogynistic comments; and they fear that someone with seemingly little depth on global politics may soon be the face of a global superpower.  While the region hasn’t exactly surged in its appreciation for President Obama’s leadership over the past seven years, Trump’s popularity reminds them that many Americans have less appealing values and principles, which could result in policies harmful to the region.  Latin Americans know of what they speak.  One need not look too far into the past to see the catastrophic effects of simplistic, nationalistic, strong-man policies on the people of Latin America.

 June 21, 2016

* Aaron Bell is an adjunct professor in History and American Studies at American University.

Correction 2016.06.22: Gustavo Madero is the former president of Mexico’s PAN, currently headed by Ricardo Anaya.

U.S.-Colombia: Launching “Peace Colombia”

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Kerry Santos

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State / Flickr / Public Domain

The United States, buoyed by good feelings about what President Obama called Colombia’s “remarkable transformation,” last week pledged $450 million a year in continued aid for the next five years, but it’s not clear yet whether “Peace Colombia” will be very different from Plan Colombia, to which the United States contributed some $10 billion.  The new spending includes unspecified amounts to support the reintegration of FARC combatants who lay down their arms as part of a peace accord expected next month, but much of the emphasis appears to be on old priorities, such as “consolidating and expanding progress in security and counternarcotics.”

  • Obama and Colombian President Santos announced the new program in Washington events marking the 15th anniversary of the launch of Plan Colombia. Amid the many remarks about Colombia’s progress, indicators such as homicide rates (down 50 percent since 2002), kidnapping rates (down 90 percent), economic growth (averaging 4.3 percent), and poverty and unemployment (down slightly) stand out.  By most accounts, moving around core regions of Colombia is easier and safer than it’s been in decades.

Some of these gains of the past 15 years remain tenuous, and “Peace Colombia” will face new challenges as well.  In speeches and backgrounders, government officials have acknowledged that coca eradication and crop substitution programs have failed to reverse Colombia’s role as the world’s biggest producer of coca.  Moreover, programs supporting the demobilization of the FARC will be more difficult to implement than those given to the rightwing paramilitaries in 2002-2006.  Tens of thousands of former paramilitaries are now active in bandas criminales (BACRIMs), which President Santos recently referred to as “2,500 miniscule criminal organizations scattered throughout the country.”  Changing economic circumstances could also complicate efforts to advance peace.  During the years of Plan Colombia, the country got a healthy bump from both domestic and foreign investment – because of the improved security environment as well as the external economic environment, including the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement and Chinese demand for commodities.  Investment remains strong, but the export boom is over, which is lowering growth and squeezing government budgets.

The creation of economic opportunity is at least as important to the success of Peace Colombia as continued support for the Colombian military and security system, although last week’s speeches and press releases did not shed much light on that.  Achieving peace and building democracy will also require addressing infrastructure deficits, educational inequality, inadequate job training, and poverty.  Several Florida congressmen, arguing that “Peace Colombia” supports an accord that’s overly generous to the FARC, say they’ll oppose Obama’s pledged aid.  The assistance will almost certainly advance, however, because of the strong Washington consensus that Colombia is its biggest (if not only) success worldwide in beating back irregular armed groups.  Moreover, as President Santos and U.S. Secretary of State Kerry emphasized in a press conference, there are no conditions on the new assistance – which should assuage Congressional opponents’ concerns that the relationship will get held up by investigations into alleged human rights violations in the past.  The Presidents spoke of pulling Colombia back from the “verge of collapse” in the 2000s to the “verge of peace” now.  A broadening of strategies in both capitals, including a reassessment of the emphasis on military options, could push the country toward becoming a more inclusive democracy, which ultimately may be what is required in order to achieve lasting peace.

February 8, 2016

Colombia Peace: The War System Yields to Peace

By Nazih Richani*

Colombia Peace Mural

Mural “Nostalgia” painted by the creative collective Deúniti at La Presidenta Park in Medellín, Colombia. Photo Credit: Deúniti, colectivo creativo / Flickr / Creative Commons

Amidst growing optimism at the prospects of achieving a peace agreement in Colombia after more than a half century of irregular warfare, predictions about whether the parties can reach an accord, and sustain it over the long term, should be informed by understanding the underlying logic that fueled the conflict and may now be bringing it to a close. Civil wars are complex social systems with peculiar properties, dynamics, and political economy.  Similar to other social systems, a war system—a set of violent interacting units—rests on a point of equilibrium, which can shift depending on the system’s inner dynamics and external stimuli.  The exponential growth in the 1990s of Colombia’s two main Marxist rebel groups—the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN)—prompted the emergence of right-wing paramilitaries, an instrument of the state’s counterinsurgency strategy.  An expansion of the radius of the war and surge in combat-related fatalities, massacres, land dispossession, and displacements followed.  The failure of peace talks between the FARC and the government of President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) indicated that the war system was largely unchanged despite the escalation.

The intervention of a new actor—the United States—disrupted the equilibrium of the war system.  Under “Plan Colombia,” Washington (committing about $10 billion) and Bogotá ($80-100 billion) modernized and restructured the Colombian armed forces.  This new phase in the war system marked a departure from the “comfortable stalemate” that characterized the conflict between 1964 and 2000.  New weapons, air power, tactical flexibility, and expanding mobile commando brigades with U.S. military and technical support, enabled the Colombian armed forces to put the FARC on the defensive.  It took the FARC leadership more than eight years to adjust, losing territory and, more importantly, three of its main leaders: Raul Reyes (2008), Mono Jojoy (2010), and Alfonso Cano (2011).  But the FARC’s “Plan Rebirth”—reverting from “mobile war of positions” to guerrilla warfare, creating more interdependent commando units, and using more snipers and mines—changed the balance anew.

The new equilibrium in the war system, in which the law of the diminishing returns of the war’s investment started kicking in, drove both sides to conclude that the time for peace was arriving.  Colombia’s ruling elites concluded that prosecuting the war would be too costly at a time that U.S. attention was shifting to other theaters and threats.  FARC commander Alfonso Cano, months before his targeted killing, communicated the intention of his movement to seek a negotiated settlement as well.  The cost of continued war had become too great for both sides, and external factors—the death of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and the changing Andean regional political environment—were also factors.  FARC became convinced that trading bullets for ballots could help in achieving the remaining objectives of its armed rebellion.  As the two sides continue to make progress in peace talks in Havana, outsiders who want the accords to succeed would do well to remember that disruptions to the war system equilibrium could easily threaten both sides’ commitment to signing and implementing a final deal.

January 11, 2016

Nazih Richani is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Latin American Studies at Kean University.  In 2014 the State University of New York Press  published a revised and updated version of his 2002 study entitled Systems of Violence: The Political Economy of War and Peace in Colombia.

Colombia: Historic Progress, Historic Challenges

By Fulton Armstrong

Colombia Peace

The leadership shown by Colombian President Santos and FARC Commander “Timochenko” – encouraged by the Vatican and the governments of Cuba, Norway, and the United States – will be tested as challenges to completion and implementation of a final accord are certain to be intense.  The President and FARC leader announced last week that they’d resolved the thorny issue of justice for guerrilla and government commanders accused of serious crimes and set a deadline of 23 March 2016 to sign a peace agreement.  The most important – and controversial – provision covers “transitional justice” for a range of offenses, including crimes against humanity.  Most of the estimated 6,000 rank-and-file FARC combatants will get amnesty, while commanders will choose between confessing their crimes and serving five- to eight-year terms performing labor in institutions other than prisons, or refusing to cooperate at the risk of much longer terms in prison.  (The same procedures will be established for government military officers accused of atrocities and those guilty of financing the paramilitary fighters who ravaged the countryside through the mid-2000s.)  The FARC also agreed that guerrillas would begin handing in their weapons when the final accord is signed.  Negotiators had previously agreed on rural development strategies, political participation, and counterdrug policies.

Almost universally, the agreement has been hailed as an historic achievement.  The announcement in Havana capped three years of talks facilitated by “guarantors” Cuba and Norway and later supported by the United States, represented by former Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson.  During a mass in Cuba several days earlier, Pope Francis had implored the two sides to strike a deal, noting that “we do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure on this path of peace and reconciliation.”  U.S. Secretary of State Kerry called the Havana accord a “major breakthrough” and pledged that Aronson would stay closely engaged.

Latin American peace accords – most ending wars much shorter than the five decades of Colombia’s – provide ample evidence that the road ahead, however historic, will not be without difficult challenges.   

  • The accord will require a constitutional amendment, and President Santos will have to submit it for congressional approval and a national referendum. Former President Uribe, who leads Centro Democrático, has already declared war on it, calling it “a coup against democracy” that will lead to a “new dictatorship backed by guns and explosives.”  (Uribe also attacked Kerry’s statement as “deplorable.”)  Public discussion of details of guerrilla abuses, including forced youth recruitment and sexual violence, will play into opponents’ hand.
  • Colombian Prosecutor General Alejandro Ordóñez, an Uribe ally, said last week that any accord that does not entail prison terms for FARC commanders guilty of crimes would be “legally and politically untenable.” He claimed that it would violate victims’ rights and international law, which requires that punishment for war crimes be “proportional to the crimes committed.”  Human Rights Watch also condemned the provision and predicted the International Criminal Court would do so as well. 
  • Fulfilling commitments in the agreement to address the longstanding lack of government infrastructure in huge expanses of the country, help even modestly the resettlement of the more than 5 million persons displaced by violence, and expand programs to alleviate poverty and income inequality will have price tag beyond Colombia’s current ability to pay. Informal estimates of the 10-year cost are $30 billion.  The willingness of Colombian elites, who only grudgingly paid a war tax, to help foot the bill is far from certain.
  • The FARC’s ability to enforce discipline among its rank and file is also untested. There are reports that some commanders oppose any agreement.  Moreover, like demobilized paramilitary combatants, many combatants know no life other than rural combat and will be tempted to keep their weapons and join criminal networks that continue to terrorize rural communities.
  • The outstanding U.S. warrants for the extradition on drug-trafficking charges of reportedly dozens of FARC commanders may require some finessing, but Colombia’s peace commissioner, Sergio Jaramillo, suggested confidence that Washington will not demand extraditions if, as is almost certain, they would be a deal-breaker.

September 29, 2015