A Fraught (but Hopeful) Peace

˙ Voces

On June 23rd, President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos shook hands with Rodrigo Londoño (who goes by the nom de guerre “Timochenko”) for a historic bilateral ceasefire with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The announcement marked a critical milestone, with the two sides finally agreeing on a timeline and logistical process for disarmament, the final major hurdle. While there are still some details to be negotiated before the final accord is signed, peace with the FARC is at hand. After 52 years of fighting, the bloodshed has officially stopped, and all that are enforcement, verification, and a national referendum which will formally ratify the deal. At that point, Colombia will move on to “building the peace”—implementing the agreement and spurring post-conflict development, neither of which will be easy.

This accord has come at a considerable cost for Santos and for Colombian politics. Divisions over the negotiation process, the FARC’s trustworthiness and intent to disarm, perceived laxness of punishments through the special tribunal (leaders will face up to eight years of house arrest, but no prison time), and the eventual participation of ex-guerrillas in politics have polarized the country. Distaste for the FARC runs understandably deep in Colombia after decades of terror, kidnappings, drug trafficking, and violence. For many, the peace process is nothing more than a deal with the devil. Now Santos’ approval rating stands in the mid-20s, among the lowest in the region.

Reactions to the announcement were predictably split. Santos, his government, and his allies heralded the historical significance of the date and continued to stress how the deal was fair, just, and would still be subject to a national vote. “Peace will change Colombia,” Santos tweeted.

Social democratic Senator Antonio Navarro Wolff—a former M-19 guerrilla fighter and sometimes-critic of the process from the left—tweeted his congratulations, saying that the announcement “is enough to be happy. Truly happy.” Congratulations from abroad poured in, from Bill Clinton to Ban Ki Moon to Pope Francis.

The FARC also worked to sell the deal, with supreme urban commander Carlos Antonio Lozada telling The Guardian that “we repent everything, not just the war but things that we have done in life.” He argued that “no future generations of Colombians should have to go through this war” and that the country was witnessing “a clamor for peace.”

Critics of the deal, however, were much less congratulatory. Senator and former President Álvaro Uribe, Santos’ predecessor and primary critic, posted a six-minute video statement declaring that “the word ‘peace’ is wounded” and accusing the government of “capitulating to terrorism” among a list of other charges. He claimed that the deal was a “validation of Fidel Castro, his communist dictatorship, and the bloody tyranny of [Hugo] Chávez and Nicolas Maduro.” In the coming months, Uribe will almost certainly continue his rhetorical campaign against the accord and against Santos and his allies. 

Others struck similar themes. Alejandro Ordóñez Maldonado, the Inspector General and one of the most visible critics in the government, argued that the disarmament process “is incomplete, totally inadequate, and does not guarantee that the FARC will fully and definitively demobilize. Neither does this agreement guarantee that [the FARC] will never again rearm.” His comments touched on fears across Colombia that the peace would be an illusion and that the FARC’s stated intentions are disingenuous. Rafael Nieto, former Vice-Minister of Justice and widely-read columnist, argued that the only winners from the day were “the criminals” and that “the rest, democracy, republican institutions, and upstanding citizens, those who have never murdered or committed a crime, the immense majority, lost.”

Reactions to the disarmament process—to take place in 23 “concentration zones” across the country—were also mixed among the mayors and governors of the various municipalities and departments that will host the demobilization, with one telling El Tiempo he was concerned that the government “did not let us decide” and another that “we hope this situation related to the concentration of guerrilla fighters is not going to disturb the peace we have enjoyed.”

Still, many in Colombia hope that—with the accord finally taking shape, and the end of the process on the horizon—the deep polarization it has caused may be ebbing. Although it will be tight, polls show that a majority of Colombians still plan to vote for the referendum. For many, the news of a ceasefire means that the process can move on to a new stage of national dialogue and consensus building. In a statement on Twitter, Marta Lucía Ramírez, a conservative former defense minister and frequent critic of Santos, focused on the need to now be prudent and carefully read the agreement before the referendum. In an article on El Colombiano, she argued that “those who have made criticisms of aspects of the process and agreements, as in my particular case, have the responsibility to continue playing a constructive role in understanding the fine print, interpreting it in the most beneficial way for society to reach an accord, and contribute to the proposal of future mechanisms of verification to give greater guarantees of ending the conflict.”  

Hopefully, for Colombia’s sake, the announcement of the ceasefire marks the high-water point for political strife. Unless there is a major disruption, the peace process itself is now in its final chapter and unlikely to be derailed.  Although the polarization will no doubt continue through the many difficulties in implementing the accord—many critics expect it to fail outright—with any luck the country will soon be able to look beyond war and to the future.

And just in time, too. The economy is fragile and problems of violence, crime, and drug trafficking remain serious. And the process of peacebuilding does not end with the accord. The post-conflict will be at least as arduous as the peace negotiations. First, the accord must be implemented. The original attempted peace process with the FARC in the 1980s collapsed when 2,000-3,000 members of its foray into democratic politics, the Patriotic Union party, were gunned down by right-wing death squads. Demobilized guerrilla fighters must be protected and reintegrated into society. And the government must simultaneously tackle a broad range of difficult development initiatives to ensure that the FARC’s territory and fighters are not absorbed by the ELN (a smaller, still-active guerrilla force with which the government also hopes to sign a peace accord) and various other criminal groups.

To meet all of these challenges, the country will require a national consensus that a better Colombia is in sight. Maybe, just maybe, that consensus is now possible.