Colombia: Truth Alone Will Not be Enough

By Christian Wlaschütz*

Several men and women sit in chairs at a table

Jesuit Francisco de Roux (center), who will lead Colombia’s truth commission, at a meeting with rural communities involved in the peace-building process. / Véala / Agencia Prensa Rural / Flickr / Creative Commons

The 11 members of Colombia’s “Commission for the Clarification of the Truth, Living Together and Non-Recurrence” were announced last week – a landmark in that country’s still tortuous reconciliation process.  Jesuit Francisco de Roux, who has worked for peace for decades, will preside over the commission as it undertakes its three-year mission (after a preparatory period of six months).  Presidential Decree No. 588, issued last April, broadly defines the Commission’s tasks as contributing to the truth of what happened; establishing the voluntary recognition of responsibilities; and promoting a culture of peace and dialogue throughout the country.  Like any truth commission, its mandate includes dignifying the victims and identifying the patterns of violence and the structures that perpetuated the armed conflict; and providing a differentiated account of the suffering of women, children, and ethnic minorities.  It will develop a list of recommendations for the future.

The truth commission faces a number of challenges and dilemmas that will not be easy to overcome.

  • The polarization of society regarding the peace process, personalized as the confrontation between President Santos and former President Uribe, will require de Roux to seek permanent dialogue and trust-building on all sides. In a first statement, Uribe said the appointment of de Roux was a positive sign.  But the current presidential campaign threatens to stymie political agreements and could potentially make the Commission a target to discredit the government.
  • The incapacity or unwillingness of the Congress to discuss legislation on the peace process, as seen this week when not even the quorum was reached, could be a major obstacle.
  • Corruption, drug trafficking, the concentration of land, and other endemic issues that fueled the armed conflict stand to endanger the peaceful future of the country – and will require the careful attention of the Commission. The security situation in several regions already leaves little space for people to present testimony to the Commission.
  • The Commission’s structural link with other elements of the “Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Recurrence” could cause some confusion. One element of the system is the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which will have duties related to criminal justice that could discourage witnesses from providing testimony to the Commission.

All noble intentions aside, the “truth” alone may not be sufficient to effect the real transformation that lasting peace will entail.  There are plenty of versions of the truth in Colombia, and thousands of volumes of analysis of the conflict dynamics in every region.  The involvement of companies funding armed actors and the politicians giving them support have been documented.  Academic publications, civil society reports, international analyses, and oral histories abound.  But if the Commission wants to make a difference, it must go beyond the accumulation of knowledge.

  • Precedent suggests that the Commission’s effectiveness will depend on finding an efficient way to be present in the regions, thus moving toward citizens instead of waiting for them. A strong public dimension to the testimony of both victims and perpetrators will help give the truth meaning through the empathy that is often missing in abstract discussions on the numbers of the victims.  Probably most importantly, a diverse group of friends or supporters of the Commission – credible representatives of different social groups who will eventually push implementation of the Commission’s recommendations – will be key.  Colombia doesn’t need yet another analysis of the patterns of atrocities and a list of recommendations that will never be implemented.  Truth without follow-up and transformation will only create further frustration and, potentially, more violence.

 November 20, 2017

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

Colombia: Did Pope Francis Sway Opponents of Peace Accord?

By Ana Isabel Rodríguez Iglesias*

Composite image of Santos, Uribe, and Pope Francis

Ex-president Álvaro Uribe (bottom left) continues to be at odds with current president Juan Manuel Santos (top left) over the government’s peace accords, despite Pope Francis’s call for putting peace above politics. / Santos: UNESCO/ Christelle ALIX / Flickr / Uribe: Centro Democrático / Flickr / Pope Francis: Mazur / Catholic News / Flickr / All: Modified / Creative Commons

Pope Francis’s recent visit to Colombia included a powerful message to the people, but overcoming the country’s deep polarization and high level of uncertainty around implementation of the government’s peace accords with the FARC will remain difficult as national elections next May 2018 approach.  Massive crowds assembled peacefully and homicides plummeted during his visit, and he is credited with facilitating a ceasefire between the government and the country’s other leftist insurgency, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), in force from October 1 to January 12.  The Pontiff’s reflections about peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation were seen in Colombia not only as a prayer but also as a political message to both the Catholic Church hierarchy and the country’s political leaders to unify behind a commitment to peace.

  • Divisions within the Church over the peace process will be difficult to heal. While many clergy have allied the political elite and its more conservative views about the FARC guerrilla movement, many others, such as the Archbishop of Cali, have supported approval of the resulting accords and their implementation.  The Conference of Bishops encouraged participation in last December’s plebiscite, but has remained neutral – despite the Pope’s prodding.  When President Santos and former President Uribe, a strident opponent of the accords, met with Francis in the Vatican in December, the Pope pushed hard for them to find common ground, but they left the meeting without white smoke emerging from the chimney.

Not surprisingly, Santos and Uribe don’t appear any closer to agreement after the Pope’s visit either.  Santos deeply thanked the Pope for his support of the peace process and after his departure, echoed the Pope’s main call to “to build bridges,” to “deactivate hatred,” to renounce vengeance, and to “reconcile ourselves in a fraternal encounter.”  Francis didn’t meet with Uribe (and there’s no indication that the former President requested a meeting) and spent his time in Antioquia meeting with the poor.  Uribe and his Centro Democrático party reiterated their discrepancies with the agreement.  In a public letter to the Pope, the former president said he had never opposed peace, but he forcefully rejected the political character of the war and, claiming the FARC was merely a narcoterrorist organization, and he denied their eligibility to participate in Colombian democracy.  “The legal authorization they have received to spend illicit money on their political activities, and other points, constitute incentives for crime,” he said.  Parties aligned with Uribe in opposition to the accords – Cambio Radical and the Conservative Party – have also tried to delink the Pope’s message about peace from the peace agreement itself.  They advocate a new peace agreement.

Even though the Pope hasn’t helped the two presidents mend fences yet, his concept of peace has resonated with the country’s social and political movements, ethnic groups, victims, and intellectuals.  A nascent coalition of left-leaning minority parties, called Ni-Ni’s, could give voice and organization to them and – perhaps in the future – bring some pressure to bear on opponents of the accords to come toward the middle.  Congressional elections next March and Presidential elections two months later guarantee that implementation of the peace accords will remain front and center in Colombian politics.  The national debate may be politically satisfying to some, but it will essentially preclude the sort of renegotiation that Uribe’s forces demand while also forcing delays in important national reconciliation measures.  Even if he wanted to, Santos doesn’t have the authority to jettison one of the measures most neuralgic for his opponents – the idea that a Truth Commission will bring to justice military officers accused of abuses during Uribe’s presidency and politicians linked to paramilitary forces – and, even if he could, it would not guarantee a strong enough consensus to plow ahead with the peace plan.  Pope Francis may have sown the mustard seeds of a popular movement to press conservatives to compromise, but many challenges remain.

 September 26, 2017

* Ana Isabel Rodríguez Iglesias is a Ph.D. Candidate in International Politics and Conflict Studies at the University of Coimbra (Portugal) and a CLALS Fellow.

Colombia’s Peace Accord and the Prospects of the War System

By Nazih Richani*

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A FARC demobilization zone is visited by the UN Security Council Field Mission. / UK Mission to the UN / Lorey Campese / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Colombian peace accord has achieved another historic landmark, but the process has been anything but easy – and continues to face serious impediments.  The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have deposited 60 percent of their weapons in UN containers to be destroyed, a watershed in the history of Colombia, as the 53-year-old insurgent group enters a new phase.  A coalition of political and social groups, however, continues efforts to stymie implementation of the accord.  It includes large landowners, cattle ranchers, agribusinesses, ultra-right religious groups, and extractive multinational corporations.  Its leading spokesmen are former President Álvaro Uribe and former Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez, who are spearheading a vigorous campaign arguing that President Juan Manuel Santos and his government conceded too much to the FARC, compromising private property rights, the prevailing land-tenure system, and the country’s Christian values.  (The official line of the Colombian Catholic Church, which has strongly conservative factions, has been “neutral” on the peace accord, although Pope Francis has expressed strong support for it.)

These forces have flexed their muscles before.  They were instrumental in mobilizing opposition to the referendum on the accord last October, which forced the government to incorporate their demands by making the language of the accord clear that property rights and the agribusiness-extractive-rentier economic model remained dominant.  The opposition remains on the offensive, this time using the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Constitutional Court.  While Public Prosecutor Nestor Humberto Martínez was going after FARC money, alleging that the rebels did not declare all their assets, the Constitutional Court challenged the “Fast-Track” process by which passage of bills related to implementation of the peace accord could be accelerated by reducing the number of parliamentary debates and the time required for approval.  This opened the door for the opposition coalition in parliament to challenge the accord repeatedly with protracted debate and amendments.  Its main goal has been to prevent any change in the rural land tenure system and block the inclusion of the FARC in the political process.

The opponents’ ability to tip the political balance against the accord is likely to grow as Colombia prepares for its presidential election in May 2018.  The Santos government, the left, and center-left have already looked weak while trying to make even modest reforms necessary to create conditions for a lasting peace and facilitating a transition from a war system political economy to a different one.  The paramilitaries, including old groups that remained operative after the formal demobilization of 2005-06 (such as the “Urabeños,” mutated from the former United-Defense Forces, AUC); the drug cartels and organized crime; the dramatic expansion of coca plantations; and mining of dubious legality are important components of the “old” war system that are still potent and fuel the reactionary coalition.  The exit of the FARC (and possibly the National Liberation Army, ELN, as well) are certain to change the composition and political economy of the war system that has shaped Colombia for more than four decades, but new actors (the Urabeños and others) are emerging and mutations are taking place.  These forces will persist and wield considerable power as long as Colombia is not willing or capable of addressing the countrys need for agrarian reforms and pursuing sustainable economic development based on a more equitable distribution of wealth and income.

June 27, 2017

* 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: 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’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.

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: 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.