Peace talks in Colombia
Our view: Civil war that spawned misery and drug cartels may soon end
For most of the last half century the government of the Andean nation of Colombia has battled a violent insurgency led by leftist rebels who gave no quarter and expected none. The decades-long conflict killed some 220,000 people and drove 5 million more from their homes and into squalid shantytowns circling the country’s major cities — a belt of misery and deprivation that fueled the growth of powerful drug cartels, murderous right-wing death squads and a human rights catastrophe of epic proportions. It is the longest war ever fought in the Americas, and until recently it showed no sign of ever ending.
That is why the announcement last week that the Colombian government has signed a tentative peace agreement with the largest rebel faction, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, also known as FARC, has raised hopes across the region that Colombia’s long national nightmare may finally be over. The pact calls for a cease-fire, a timetable for the rebels to surrender their weapons and a path for former fighters to re-enter civilian life, engage in peaceful political activity and even hold public office. It would also hold fighters on both sides harmless for human rights violations committed during decades of warfare.
Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, called the peace deal a historic achievement that opens the door to a new chapter in his country’s history. But he’s also acutely aware of the deep divisions in Colombian society the war created and the anger of millions of ordinary citizens who lost their homes, livelihoods and loved ones in the fighting. He has promised to hold a national referendum in October in which voters will be asked to ratify the any agreement before it can go into effect, thus setting the stage for what is expected to be a vigorous debate over whether the country can ever forgive those who committed atrocities during the war if they’re not held accountable for their deeds.
The agreement is the culmination of years of behind-thescenes negotiations between the government and rebel forces. The most recent round of secret talks began four years ago in Havana at a time when the government had significantly weakened the armed opposition. But the talks dragged on as the negotiators tackled one hurdle after another, any one of which could have sunk the deal. Yet the proposal that finally emerged offers the best hope yet of turning the page onthe country’s violent past.
There are still many questions remaining about what will happen even if the pact is ratified by voters. Some have asked whether the country’s smaller rebel factions will accept it as well — there are at least three other Marxist-inspired guerrilla groups operating around the country whose fighters presumably would be offered the same terms as the FARC if the deal goes through. How they will respond is an open question, given that the agreement with the FARC falls far short of meeting their revolutionary demands.
Another potential sticking point will be how to re-integrate thousands of former FARC militants, many of whom were recruited as child soldiers and know no other way of life than jungle warfare, into civilian society. How can the government guarantee they will be accepted by their former enemies as neighbors, employees and potential participants in the political process? And can they be trusted to renounce violence permanently, or for only as long as its suits their agendas? Many Colombians fear returning rebels will refuse to lay down their arms and instead join the criminal gangs that prey on ordinary citizens.
In that regard one of the biggest questions is whether the rebels will renounce the powerful drug cartels that funded their military and political operations during the war. The U.S. State Department still officially designates the FARC as a terrorist organization that “controls the majority of cocaine manufacturing and distribution within Colombia, and is responsible for much of the world’s cocaine supply.” Some experts warn the former rebels may still try to maintain control of their former territories through extortion, kidnappings and assassinations of political opponents.
In announcing the peace agreement, President Santos told Colombians that “today begins the end of the suffering, the pain and the tragedy of war.” Colombia is closer to achieving that goal than at any time since the 1960s. But it will take courage and an unwavering commitment to see the process through. Mr. Santos will spend the next few weeks before the plebiscite campaigning to sell the agreement to his countrymen, and the whole world should hope his efforts meet with success.