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 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

Colombia’s Peace Talks: Back from the Brink

By Aaron T. Bell

"Colombia somos todos/We are all Colombia" Photo Credit: Juan Carlos Pachón / Flickr / Creative Commons

“Colombia somos todos/We are all Colombia” Photo Credit: Juan Carlos Pachón / Flickr / Creative Commons

Peace negotiations are back on track in Colombia – for now – after renewed violence put years of progress at risk.  The unilateral cease-fire declared by the FARC last December survived the Colombian military’s continued prosecution of the war for several months, including the killing in March of José David Suarez, the head of the wealthy (and drug-trade-affiliated) 57th Front.  But it was proven unsustainable after a guerrilla attack in April killed eleven soldiers, and Colombian military aerial bombardment of FARC camps in May killed 40 guerrillas, including two who had participated in the peace negotiations in Havana.  The FARC formally revoked its cease-fire and resumed attacks on military and energy infrastructure targets, making June the most active month of the FARC insurgency since negotiations began two and a half years ago.  At the urging of international supporters of the peace process, however, the FARC will implement a new unilateral cease-fire this week.  President Santos stated that the Colombian military will de-escalate as well, but – responding to polls by Gallup and Datexco reflecting public skepticism that a negotiated settlement is possible – he has also pledged to review the situation in four months and decide whether to continue negotiations.  While Santos has appointed a new Defense Minister whose public statements and record as a member of the government negotiating team indicate support for the peace talks, the President has also shaken up the military high command, promoting combat-experienced hawkish officers as commanders.

A renewed sense of urgency among negotiators appears to be emerging.  Both sides have agreed to put all of the pending issues – disarmament and demobilization, compensation for victims, and transitional justice – on the table, rather than deal with them one at a time.  This comes after several positive steps during the hiatus in talks:

  • In late May, while airstrikes on guerrilla camps were resuming, units of the FARC and the Colombian military collaborated in several operations to remove land mines. Colombia is the second most deadly country for land mines, behind only Afghanistan, with over 2,000 people killed and another 11,000 maimed since 1990.  A video on the web last week provided a dramatic example of the need for such measures – a Blackhawk helicopter exploding after landing in a minefield last month.
  • On June 4 negotiators agreed on the makeup of a post-accord Truth Commission. Eleven members will have three years to identify collective (rather than individual) responsibility for abuses.  It will have no mandate to recommend or impose punishment, leaving that instead for an as yet to be agreed upon transitional justice tribunal.
  • Both the FARC and coca growers have called on the government to begin implementing the preliminary agreement on the illicit drug trade, including crop substitution and voluntary eradication. (Recent reports from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy, which use different raw numbers and data-gathering methodologies, show that coca production in Colombia rose significantly in 2014.)  Even though, as InsightCrime has noted, the initiative will be hindered by the lack of a bilateral cease-fire and firm plans for demobilization, it’s a positive step.

Despite the skepticism implicit in the review it will make in four months, the Santos administration appears to be inching toward the bilateral cease-fire that the FARC has long called for.  The government formerly insisted that a bilateral cease-fire would only take place after accords were signed, but has said it would consider one so long as it is “serious, bilateral, definitive and verifiable.”  On the other side of the table, the FARC shows some sign of bending on the thorny matter of transitional justice.  After adamantly opposing jail time for its leaders, FARC negotiators say they will consider some form of confinement for a reduced time period so long as military officials and civilian supporters of right-wing paramilitaries face similar standards of justice.  This may be difficult to swallow for a Colombian military whose culpability in war crimes is bubbling to the surface, such as in a recent report by Human Rights Watch on the extrajudicial killing of thousands of civilians.  The ever-present threat of military opposition to a negotiated accord, coupled with rising public skepticism, suggest the time to make concrete progress toward an accord is now.  The window will not stay open long.

July 21, 2015

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

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. 

Colombian President Santos’s Challenges Now … and Later

By Fulton Armstrong


Colombian polls continue to give President Santos a comfortable margin in a second-round re-election victory, but the gap is closing – and an array of issues plaguing his campaign suggest serious challenges ahead for a second term.  The economy grew 4.3 percent last year, and optimism about future growth is so strong that the central bank is implementing measures to keep inflation under control.  The peace process with the FARC has been tedious – yielding agreements on only two of five main agenda items over 17 months of talks – but the fundamental drivers of the talks, including fatigue on both sides, remain strong.  But a number of political messes are swirling around the President:

  • The Army was caught red-handed spying on Santos’s top advisors in the FARC negotiations, suggesting disloyalty to him as Commander in Chief.  (The intercept center that police last week [6 May] raided was not the Army’s.  It was staffed by contractors reporting to the Centro Democrático, the party of former President Uribe and Santo’s leading rival in the election, Óscar Iván Zuluaga.)
  • Uribe, who in March won a seat in the Colombian Senate, has been a relentless critic and drawn Santos into public spats.  Santos recently called on the former President to “stop causing the country harm” and to stop politicizing the Armed Forces.
  • An agricultural strike launched in late April has revived memories of a nasty confrontation last year and threatens food supplies in the run-up to the election.  Santos has mobilized police and military assets to keep highways open, but a political solution has eluded him.
  • In late April, the courts forced Santos to reinstate Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, whom he had removed a month earlier because the nation’s inspector general, an Uribe partisan, found that the mayor’s decision to cancel private garbage-collection contracts did not follow proper procedure.  Santos had gone ahead with the firing over the objections of a unanimous Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
  • Santos’s political message has been off target.  He has made the peace talks his top priority and proclaimed that “the second term will be about peace,” but polls indicate that only 5 percent of voters say the peace process is their top concern.

If the polls are correct, Colombians voting in the first round on May 25 and second round on June 15 feel little enthusiasm for Santos, but even less for Zuluaga and Uribe’s party.  A recent surge in support for former Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa suggests, on the other hand, that voters could turn on both candidates.  Behind the numbers is a country eager to consolidate its democracy, maintain stability and – probably – end the 50-year insurgency.  But the red flags – such as the security service’s continued penchant for spying on government officials – are not inconsequential.  Santos, who was Defense Minister during Uribe’s presidency, should have earned the military’s confidence, will have to decide how far to push the military to respect democratically elected civilian leadership.  The farmers’ demands, including relief from low-priced, low-quality imports facilitated by Colombia’s free trade agreements, will also be difficult to satisfy.  A peace deal with the FARC will be an historic achievement, but the political reality is probably that any assistance to demobilized combatants will be minuscule compared to that given to the former paramilitaries – increasing the likelihood that ex-insurgents, like the paramilitaries, will join the bandas criminales (BACRIM) who continue to maraud throughout large swaths of the country.  Santos’s second term, should he win one, will not be easy.