Peace talks in Colom­bia

Our view: Civil war that spawned mis­ery and drug car­tels may soon end

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

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.

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