Is Latin America's Longest-Running War Finally Over?

Is Latin America's Longest-Running War Finally Over?
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Last week was historic for Colombians: After three years, government negotiators struck a deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on disarmament terms and conditions for a final cease-fire. While the country is closer than ever to ending a war that has produced millions of victims, a final accord is yet to be signed. Critically, this final agreement must then be ratified by the Colombian people with a plebiscite. As Colombians consider where they stand, the world community should not make the mistake of keeping to the sidelines. It must step clearly into the peace camp.

The announcement is the first critical step toward ending Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict and starts the clock on the political battle to consolidate peace. It will be an explosive political fight. President Juan Manuel Santos has been adamant about the need to subject the peace agreement to a popular vote, allowing the Colombian people to decide rather than leaving this big decision up to political elites. Many people have recommended a different course. The example of British Prime Minister David Cameron is a very lively reminder that promises of popular votes can endanger one’s political career.

Indeed, Santos’ relentless commitment is admirable, but not without risks. Many Colombians are very skeptical about FARC’s intention to lay down arms and transform into a political actor. After years of violence, many wonder whether the country should make peace with a group that has committed such constant and serious atrocities over many decades. Colombians have valid concerns over whether negotiators conceded too much, such as granting former guerrillas political participation and allowing them to avoid jail time if they confess to war crimes.

Opposition to the peace process in Havana has been led by former president Alvaro Uribe, whose presidency led the most successful military strategy against the Colombian rebels. President Uribe is unwaveringly opposed to any concessions to the guerrilla group, which he believes could be militarily defeated. His message has been popular with a significant portion of Colombia’s citizenry.  

Still, Uribe has lost almost every recent political battle. His party lost the previous presidential election, and his candidates did very poorly in October 2015 local elections. His party has only 18 percent of Senate seats. While many Colombians express doubts about the peace process, most Colombians support taking a chance for peace. There are many victims’ groups that support the negotiations in the hope that the next generation will be able to live in peace.

The campaigning for or against the plebiscite has already begun. On the one hand, Uribe has mobilized his party, the Centro Democrático, to collect signatures as part of its “civil resistance” campaign.  On the other hand, President Santos has taken advantage of his presidential bully pulpit to talk about the benefits of peace. Civil society -- always lively in Colombia -- has engaged in the fight, a clear sign of Colombia’s vibrant democracy.

However, Colombia is polarizing over the peace issue. This is always worrisome in a country with a history of internal schism and violence.

President Santos must articulate how this deal will increase the country’s future economic prosperity and security. Colombia has made enormous social and economic progress over the past decade and a half, but the war with FARC has left entire swaths of the country without economic benefit.

The government’s campaign for “yes” must emphasize that this peace project belongs to all of Colombia, and not just to the president. Conflict areas that have lived without electricity will suddenly know the life-changing economic, health, and social benefits of electrical power. Regions that have never seen a state school will understand the concept of public education. Public health officials will be able to travel to the far reaches of the country.  The country’s economic development agenda and its peace agenda have always been separate objectives.  This campaign is a chance to unify the causes.

President Barack Obama -- vowing to support “Peace Colombia” -- has already pledged to increase aid to the country to $450 million in the first year. The United States and others can do even more.  The Vatican’s first-ever Latin American Pope has taken the lead, announcing plans to visit Colombia in early 2017 once the country has voted for peace.

International financial institutions such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank should make clear plans for accelerated disbursements of monies for infrastructure, health, and education. The European Union should boost its assistance programs in support of peace. Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) nations could show their support with a joint declaration that Colombia should be one of the first members to join once the pact is ratified by the initial signatory nations. Colombia already has free trade agreements with five of the 11 current TPP members and is currently conducting negotiations with Japan. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development can announce that Colombia’s successful accession negotiations are nearly finished and that the peace effort will be a welcome last step prior to entering the prestigious institution.

I have personally conducted polls in the country since 1987 and there has always been a desire for peace. Even at the height of violence with FARC in the early 2000s, a longing for peace was latent. No peace is perfect, but Colombians would be wise to take advantage of a once in a lifetime, and a once in a century, opportunity.

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