Colombia 2017 (721)

Peace is just a word. Just a word. -Eurythmics

When friends ask me how my trip to Colombia was I feel like I should talk about the food, the friendly people, and the amazing scenery. But all I want to talk about is the peace agreement.

Colombia is having a moment. A good one. Last year they signed a peace agreement that effectively will end 53 years of political violence that began in 1964. But peace, after so many years of war, must feel overwhelming and unbelievable. The country felt like it was still waiting to exhale.

To show what peace means in Colombia, in all its complexities and ambiguities, I am posting (with permission) a talk that Paulo Tovar, who works for the independent think tank called “Ideas for Peace,” gave to us while in Bogotá. It’s a long read but gives the history and analysis needed to get the bigger picture.


Good evening, as you maybe know I work with “Ideas for Peace Foundation”, this is a Colombian independent Think Tank created in 1999. In this organization, we are sure that in Colombia, we are not completely aware of the opportunity the peace process opened. This moment should be a one of relief, of happiness; instead, it is a moment of lack of interest and distrust. This is true probably because the armed conflict in Colombia has been a very heavy load for 53 years and it is still difficult for many people to let it go. For a majority of the Colombians (in particular, those who life in the cities) the guerrilla has been the enemy for many years. To change that appreciation is difficult.

People have fears of the peace process and, unfortunately some politicians are using these fears as their main strategy for winning the presidential elections that will be held next year. They say that it is mandatory to change the agreement; otherwise, we will have impunity, more violence, Colombia will become Venezuela. On the contrary, I think the peace agreement is an opportunity, but we have to look beyond the FARC and to start thinking on the challenges the country need to overcome for a sustainable peace to be achieve. Talking from my experience in Ideas for Peace, the main challenges are:

  • Poverty in the rural areas: poverty indicators are twice high in rural areas that in cities
  • Illegal economies such as deforestation, illegal mining, and drug trafficking: these economies continue despite the FARC demobilization.
  • Decentralization and corruption: Management of public money should be completely transparent, and citizens have to engage more in public policy design, implementation, and evaluation.     

Last year, on October 2, we voted a referendum about the peace agreement between the Government and the FARC guerrilla. The results were as follows: 63% of abstention (people whom don´t vote despite they could, because in Colombia to vote is not mandatory), 37% participation. Within these votes, the “no” had 51% and the “yes” 49%. It was a very close result, but the “No” won. What happened? There are many possible explanations; however, I would like to emphasize that for a majority of the Colombians (in particular, those who life in the cities) the guerrilla has been the enemy for many years. To change that appreciation is difficult.

Political violence in Colombia has a very long history; however, for most of the analysts and academics, the more recent cycle of violence starts with the birth of the FARC in 1964. In Colombia historically, there have been two main political parties: the conservative party and the liberal party (nowadays it is different and we have many small parties). During the first half of the 20th century, we had a very complicated rivalry between these parties. In fact, the period between 1948 and 1958 is known as the “violence”. In that decade, conservative and liberal sympathizers fought almost a civil war that left almost 300,000 casualties.

To end this confrontation, Conservatives and Liberals decided to establish a pact were one of the parties will govern the government for four years and the other for the next four years, and so on. Therefore, we had a liberal president from 1958 to 1962 and then we have a conservative president from 1962 to 1966, and so on until 1974. They called this pact “frente nacional”. The pact stopped the violence. However, other political groups felt that they were excluded from power because they were neither conservative nor liberals. In this context, the main guerrillas of Colombia were born looking for the political power not with votes but with weapons.

At the beginning, the FARC was a guerrilla movement mainly composed of peasants and some intellectuals. Its territory consisted of as highly rural places of Colombia where the state had a weak presence, or were absent at all. Land reform was the main claim of FARC. Later on they embraced the socialist agenda because of the Cold War.  The FARC were influenced of the soviet model, and the Cuban revolution in 1958.

This was the characterization of the FARC until 1982. In that year, they had an important meeting, “the seventh assembly”, where they decided to enlarge their presence in the country and to have a more aggressive strategy for gain the control of the country. Because of that decision they had to increase their finances, for that to be done they made terrible choices. First, they involved in kidnapping and extortion to get financial resources. Second, little by little, they made links with drug trafficking (into different modalities). In some regions, they charged taxes on the coca crops; in others, they charged taxes on the routes for the transportation of supplies for cocaine production, or the cocaine itself. In time some squadrons of the FARC became drug dealers, some others maintained its social agenda.   

The strategy was effective, in that sense by the end of the century, the FARC had the control of an important part of the Colombian territory and they almost had the same military capability than the Colombian army. In that context in 1998 Andres Pastrana won the presidential election; he proposed in his campaign a peace process with the guerrilla. The negotiation started at 1999; nevertheless, it was a failure. Neither the government nor the guerrilla was willing to give in. The FARC felt they were powerful and the government just started a strategy for strengthen their military forces with the support of USA: The Colombia Plan. The next president was Alvaro Uribe Velez; he won with the promise of finishing the FARC using the armed way.

Uribe triggered an open fight with the FARC, not just militaryily but showing them as a terrorist group; an organization only committed to kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking, and without any ideology. Uribe claims, for instance, that in Colombia there was not an armed conflict but a terrorist threat. This position was similar to the position of the US government of that time, George W. Bush.

From a military point of view, this strategy was effective to weaken the guerrilla movement. For instance, in 1999, they had nearly 22,000 members, and in 2010, they only had 10,000. However, the society entered a complicated polarization, almost any Left organization was stigmatized, and many Colombians, in particular those who life in the big cities, they were convinced that it was possible to defeat the FARC just using the army.   

Juan Manuel Santos won the election in 2010. He continued with the military offensive to the FARC, but at the same time, he created the conditions for a negotiation with the guerrillas. The situation was very different form that of 1998. On one hand, the guerrillas knew that they were not as powerful as they were ten years ago; on the other hand, the government realized that to fight guerrilla were, day by day, was less cost-effective with fewer less results. President Santos put the peace process as the main priority of the government and after four years of negotiation, the guerrillas and government achieved a very comprehensive peace agreement. The Kroc Institute (Norte Dame University) claims that this agreement is one of the more complete agreements in the world, because it not only tackles issues of security (as demobilization) but also includes reforms of the deep causes of the conflict, such as land reform, substitution of coca crops, victims reparation, and last but not least, participation in politics.

Then we had the referendum. Many analysts considere that the government did do enough to educate the public about the agreement. The agreement is 310 pages, few people read it completely. For many the agreement was just a collection of benefits for the guerrillas, and not a public policy on land reform, substitution of coca crops, reparation of victims and participation in politics. Other people still believed that the government was really close to finishing off the FARC using weapons and they did not understand why the state now is giving them benefits. Some people thought the FARC were rich and they were not willing to give the money they got illegally.

After the referendum, the government asked to the leaders of the “no” to send their objections to the agreement.  These objections were discussed with the FARC and some changes were made to the initial agreement. The Congress approved the new text (the agreement with some add-ons). There was not a new referendum, however many analysts think that elections in 2018 will be the second round of this consultation.  Since November 2016, the Colombian Government is implementing the text approved by Congress.

The lack of a second referendum triggered more fear and distrust of the agreement, however we can see that the FARC are committed to the agreement: they gathered themselves in 26 specific areas, they gave their weapons to the United Nation, and surely, they will report the goods and the money they have. There will be difficulties that is for sure, but definitely, the FARC no longer exist. It is time for us to think of the peace of Colombia from a different perspective, a one where rural poverty, environment and civil participation should be the main issues.

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