Colombia: Peace by Pieces

By Angelika Rettberg*

colombiapaz

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

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: 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

Why Is Madrid Not in the Game in Latin America?

By Fulton Armstrong

Pres. Mariano Rajoy (Spain) y  Juan Manuel Santos (Colombia), signing an agreement at the Palacio de La Moncloa. Photo Credit: La Moncloa Gobierno de España / Flickr / Creative Commons

Pres. Mariano Rajoy (Spain) y Juan Manuel Santos (Colombia), signing an agreement at the Palacio de La Moncloa. Photo Credit: La Moncloa Gobierno de España / Flickr / Creative Commons

Spain’s media, government ministries and academic specialists watch what they call Iberoamérica closely, but President Rajoy and other political leaders have adopted a lower policy profile in the region than in the past – and they appear unlikely to raise it soon.  Local observers stress that Spain’s interests in the region – preserving historic leadership and influence and building commercial relations – remain the same.  The Foreign Ministry’s website emphasizes the goal of achieving “relations based on equality and balance with all of the countries” in Latin America and to be the European Union’s “key agent” in relations with the region.  Spain also puts great stock in the annual Iberoamerican Summits, even though attendance can fall short of what it hopes for, such as in Veracruz, Mexico, last December.  Madrid rolled out the red carpet for Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in February, during which both countries’ leaders spoke of their unstinting friendship and backing.  Spanish investment in Latin America has rebounded from the setbacks of the 2008 crisis and the bad odor left by Argentina’s nationalization of Repsol’s shares in the YPF oil corporation in 2012.  Trade has never been the mainstay of the bilateral relationship, but it too has been steady, according to local experts.

Neither of Spain’s two leading parties, however, has shown much interest in making relations as “special” as they like to say.  The frisson of excitement from President Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba – arguably a validation of longstanding Spanish policy that engagement is better – did not last long.  Observers in Madrid say the government is neither concerned about new U.S. competition on the island, such as in the hotel industry, nor excited that Spanish companies will win big when U.S. tourists flood in.  After former President Zapatero met with Cuban President Raúl Castro late last month, current Foreign Minister García-Margallo accused him of “extraordinary disloyalty and … inappropriateness,” apparently for violating several Spanish protocols for former heads of government.  But Margallo’s pique was consistent with the Partido Popular’s longstanding chilliness toward Cuba (particularly under former President Aznar) and almost certain was aggravated by the fact that Raúl had stood him up for a meeting in Havana in November.  The two parties use similar rhetoric to condemn Venezuelan President Maduro’s increasingly abusive policies, but neither has provided creative leadership in finding solutions to the country’s impasse.  Former President Felipe González, of the Socialist Party (PSOE), has agreed to join the legal defense team of jailed oppositionists but apparently not counseled them on broader strategies.

Transient issues, such as frustration that investments might be nationalized, and widespread perceptions that Venezuela and other problem cases in Latin America are intractable probably lie at the heart of Spain’s preference to stay on the sidelines.  The shift probably also reflects Spanish leaders’ focus on internal priorities – an economy still reeling from the 2008 crisis and youth unemployment so high (over 40 percent in some regions) that there’s fear of a “lost generation.”  In important ways, Spain’s posture toward the region parallels Washington’s – showing fatigue or doubt at a crucial juncture in Latin America’s search for political and economic models as well as effective trading alliances.  Even though Latin American rhetoric tends to reject outside models for democratic transition and institution-building – including Spain’s – Madrid’s historical experience gives it potential advantages in dealing with the region’s political challenges.  Spain and the United States approach in Latin America are quite different – Washington tends to rely on programs to strengthen regime opponents as agents of change – but their strategic objectives in Latin America are complementary.  It would make sense for the two to team up in the region, cooperate in diplomatic strategies, and provide the sort of respectful partnership that many Latin Americans seem to yearn for.

March 31, 2015

Venezuela: Crossing the Line

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Marcos Oliveira / Agência Senado / Flickr / Creative Commons

Marcos Oliveira / Agência Senado / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan President Maduro’s arrest of Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma reflects a new level of vindictiveness and almost desperation at home – and threatens to leave his government more isolated than ever in Latin America.  In a three-hour televised speech, Maduro alleged that the mayor, whom he called a vampire and fascist, was plotting with military officers to remove him from office.  Ledezma has been a strident opponent – playing a prominent role in last year’s salida movement – and the Associated Press cites unnamed sources as acknowledging the existence of identified coupists.  But Maduro’s evidence against Ledezma was negligible, mostly a document on a national transition accord.  Other Maduro opponents are also reportedly to be arrested soon.  At the same time, the President said that the U.S. Embassy was trying to turn the military against him by, he alleged, calling generals’ wives to say their U.S. visas were being revoked.

The increasingly repressive nature of the Maduro regime is drawing scorn from throughout Latin America, including countries that previously tolerated the excesses of deceased President Hugo Chávez.  UNASUR has announced it will hold an extraordinary meeting soon on the deepening crisis caused by Ledezma’s arrest, and the Foreign Ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador will make an urgent visit to Caracas this week.  Chilean President Bachelet and Senate President (and daughter of the assassinated President) Isabel Allende expressed their “concern” over the arrest.  Colombian President Santos, heretofore restrained in his criticism, told the press he was “worried.”  Amnesty International also condemned the action.  Washington’s vehement denials of Maduro’s allegations that it was involved have not been challenged.

Maduro’s Latin American neighbors are likely to continue hewing to traditional non-interventionism, but even the left appears to regret that recent events confirm the monumental squandering of the Chávez revolution’s opportunity to carry out a radical project of redistribution and propose an alternative model for the region.  Chavismo had a social base, but Chávez and, to a much greater extent, Maduro have failed to develop a democratic or economically coherent approach to their revolutionary project.  Venezuela is now paying the price and, as many predicted, the situation is getting worse before getting better.  It is impossible to say how and when the impasse will break, and hard to identify who’s capable of ending the misery – be it the military or a faction within Maduro’s own party.  It’s clear, though, that this crisis is not sustainable and regional patience with it is growing thin.

February 23, 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’s Peace Talks: One Step at a Time

By Aaron T. Bell

Number 10 / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Number 10 / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The peace talks in Havana between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas have continued to show slow but steady progress since President Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked considerable political capital on ending the 50-year conflict, began his second term three months ago.  Two years of negotiations have produced preliminary agreements on agricultural development, political participation, and resolving the illicit drug trade.  In August, negotiators turned their attention to compensating victims of the conflict, while a sub-commission staffed by top military figures from both sides has been developing recommendations for implementing a bilateral ceasefire and disarming combatants.  A recent ruling by the Constitutional Court has paved the way for the government to hold a public referendum on the peace accords once a final agreement between the two sides has been reached.

The challenges facing the successful negotiation and implementation of peace accords are significant.  At home, former president Álvaro Uribe and his allies continue to harangue President Santos, accusing the government of showing too much leniency in negotiations and most recently denouncing the participation in Havana of the FARC commanders accused of human rights abuses as an affront to their victims. Santos clashed publicly with the Inspector General (procurador general) as well after the President secretly approved trips to Cuba by the FARC’s leader, “Timochenko.”  For its part, the FARC has expressed reservations over immediate disarmament, still haunted by the deaths of thousands of members of its mid-1980s political party.  Also at issue is the fate of those guerrilla leaders who face active arrest warrants or have been tried in absentia for humans right abuses; the FARC has adamantly resisted the possibility of jail time for its members.  The government is also concerned that 10-20 percent of the FARC members will shift loyalties to organized criminal gangs after the war ends.  Severing ties between drug trafficking and the FARC supporters will require, among other things, a serious commitment to rural development to foster social inclusion for farmers who rely on coca plants for their livelihood.

In spite of these challenges, both sides have displayed a serious commitment to negotiating an end to decades of war.  The FARC has used past ceasefires to rebuild and organize its military strength, hence the government’s delay this time in negotiating an end to hostilities.  But attacks on infrastructure and security services are down from 2013, and members of the FARC have by and large respected several self-imposed ceasefires announced by the central command, most recently during this summer’s elections.  Santos has gone out on a limb by allowing wanted criminals to travel to the negotiations, but that decision is consistent with other policies.  When war crimes victims were invited to tell their stories to negotiators, Santos brushed outside critics and ensured that victims of the FARC, state, and paramilitaries were all equally represented.  Public support for the peace process looked shaky in September but has rebounded, as new polls from Gallup released last week shows over 60 percent of Colombians favor talks.  The government public release in early October of the preliminary agreements appears to have helped, silence critics who accused the government of selling out to guerrilla demands behind closed doors.  There is still considerable work to do in reaching an agreement, selling it to the public, then putting it into practice, and public support may waver if the process drags on into next year.  But, the environment has never looked as favorable for peace in Colombia as it does today.

November 13, 2014

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.