Exclusive: In a world darkened by war and disorder, a rare glimmer of optimism broke through as Colombia’s government signed a long-delayed peace accord with the country’s primary guerrilla movement, as Jonathan Marshall describes.
By Jonathan Marshall
With terrorist massacres hitting the news every few days, and financial markets reeling over the uncertain future of Europe, it’s no wonder pundits like Roger Cohen of the New York Times are warning that “the forces of disintegration are on the march” and “the foundations of the postwar world … are trembling.”
But the news media have given only glancing coverage to one of the most positive developments of our time: the end to 52 years of armed conflict between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
That bloody war took the lives of a quarter million people and displaced another 6.9 million, more even than in Syria. It produced countless crimes and atrocities against civilians, fed the international drug trade, and presented extraordinary challenges to the preservation of Colombia’s imperfect democracy.
On June 23, the same day Great Britain voted to exit the European Union, the shooting officially stopped in Colombia with the signing of a definitive, bilateral ceasefire in Havana, Cuba. (Hmm, could the key role of the Cuban government have had something to do with the American media’s disinterest?)
Already, United Nations observers — all from other Latin American nations — have arrived in Colombia to monitor the agreement. The Colombian government has dispatched 2,000 troops to the northern part of the country to safeguard the demobilization of 1,200 FARC guerrillas, the first of as many as 20,000 who will lay down their guns once a final peace deal is signed.
The troops will play an essential role in protecting the ex-guerrillas from violence by right-wing paramilitary groups, such as “Los Urabeños,” which have terrorized FARC sympathizers as well as peasants, union leaders, students and others who make up the political base of the Left in Colombia.
The ceasefire is a stunning achievement given the deep wounds left by unbridled violence on both sides. The talks took 3½ years, testing the patience not only of negotiators, but of the general public, which lost faith that the two sides could ever reach a settlement. (The smaller Marxist guerrilla group, ELN, has yet to reach a similar deal to lay down its arms.)
A Surprising Peacemaker
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who came to office with hardline credentials, surprised many by pursuing peace so relentlessly and at considerable expense to his popularity. But there was no mistaking his passionate conviction after the signing of the agreement:
“Today a new chapter opens, one that brings back hope and allows us to slowly heal our wounds, giving our children the possibility of not reliving the history that has caused our country so much harm. . .
“This is a critical step, a historic moment. However, the end of the conflict isn’t our final destination; the end of this conflict is our starting point so we can build together, united in our differences, a country where everyone has a place. Peace is possible, and more certain than ever. Let us build it now.”
The Cuban commentator Elio Delgado-Legon, applauding Colombia’s renewed hopes after more than half a century of war, asked, “Who could be against peace in Colombia?” His answer: only “the dim-witted and over-the-top reactionary minds, who have made war a lifestyle and who benefit from it in some way, without caring about the population’s suffering.”
The reality, however, is that former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, one of America’s staunchest allies — a favorite of both President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. military aid — is spearheading mass protests against any “capitulation” to FARC.
Uribe, now a senator from the right-wing Democratic Center party, is leading a petition drive and other forms of “civil resistance” to defeat any peace settlement with FARC, whose fighters he brands — not entirely without justification — as “terrorists.”
At the beginning of April, he organized huge marches in Bogotá and Medellín, the country’s two largest cities, to protest the peace process and demand the resignation of President Santos. One of the country’s leading newspapers reported that Uribe’s protest was backed by Colombia’s largest paramilitary drug-trafficking organization, Los Urabeños, which managed to shut down much of the north of the country for 72 hours after assassinating a dozen policemen.
While one Colombian senator likened Uribe to Donald Trump, President Santos — Uribe’s former defense minister — simply termed Uribe’s anti-peace campaign “totally irrational.” Santos added, “I laugh when some go around trying to collect some signatures for . . . the war to continue . . . Because war is a factory of victims.”
Many ordinary Colombians are also concerned, however — not because they oppose peace, but because they have not been consulted by the government as to the future of guerrilla resettlement or land reform policies aimed at easing rural discontent.
To its credit, the Obama administration has given unambiguous support to the peace process. The White House lauded the ceasefire and praised the “courage and leadership” of President Santos in persevering with negotiations over nearly four years. It also committed funding to support implementation of a peace accord and to rid the country of land mines. (Colombia has the second highest number of landmine victims in the world behind Afghanistan.)
The cause of peace would be advanced if Hillary Clinton, Obama’s presumptive successor, went more clearly on record in support of Santos as well. That would mean breaking with Uribe, whose “legacy of great progress” she championed during an official visit to Colombia as Secretary of State in 2010 — against the advice of human rights campaigners who cited his administration’s responsibility for mass killings of civilians and ties to paramilitary drug traffickers.
The fact is, peace still needs all the help it can get in Colombia. In the famous words of one astute social observer: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”
Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs, including The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War and the International Drug Traffic (Stanford University Press, 2012). Some of his previous articles for Consortiumnews were “Risky Blowback from Russian Sanctions”; “The US Hand in the Syrian Mess”; “Hidden Origins of Syria’s Civil War”; and “Israel Covets Golan’s Water and Now Oil.”]