Peace at Last
It has been a long time coming, but after 52 years of fighting, almost four years of peace negotiations and three months after a final deadline, the Colombian state and the Marxist guerrillas of the so-called Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have agreed to a bilateral and definitive ceasefire. That is cause for celebration for Colombia and for the region. But the peace deal is controversial; putting it into practice will be tricky, primarily due to the unpopularity of the government of Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president.
On June 23rd Mr Santos flew to Havana, the site of the talks, for a ceremony with the FARC’s leader, Rodrigo Londoño (aka “Timochenko”). The ceremony took place in the presence of Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, and five Latin American presidents. In practice, the two sides all but stopped firing a year ago, when the FARC declared a unilateral ceasefire and the government halted offensive actions. Nevertheless, the government’s formal declaration of a ceasefire is historic and many will be watching the ceremony.
This was all possible thanks to consensus being reached regarding the FARC’s demobilisation. This involves the group’s 6,800 troops and 8,500 militia assembling at 23 fixed points around the country. The negotiators have now reached agreement on all five of the points on their original agenda and Mr Santos hopes the final accord can be signed in July. In the following six months they will disarm, under international supervision. This though is no longer a key part of the peace deal as both sides are now saying, in effect, that there is no going back. The FARC have also accepted the government’s plan to ratify the peace deal in a referendum in October.
For Colombians, the agreement involves “swallowing toads”, in a local metaphor. The FARC claim to have fought a just war against unequal land ownership. In that cause the country suffered bombings, fire-fights, murders, kidnapping and extortion. Many people find it hard to accept that FARC leaders accused of crimes against humanity will not go to jail provided they confess; instead they will only face a special tribunal and restrictions on their liberty for up to eight years. Many other points in the agreement involve the government saying it will do things it should do anyway, such as fostering rural development and adopting better ways to fight drug-trafficking and criminal gangs.
There may indeed be legitimate grounds for worry. Nobody knows how much money the FARC has invested from its criminal businesses. Many distrust the sincerity of the FARC’s conversion to democracy. Additionally, because the peace negotiations have taken so long and missed so many deadlines, Colombians have no love for Mr Santos. In a recent poll his approval rating was just 20%, lower than that of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.
In the eyes of Colombians, the credibility of the agreement will depend on the integrity of the special tribunal and effective verification of disarmament. Just as important will be the government’s ability to flood the areas of FARC influence with quick-starting development projects to employ the guerrilla rank and file, and to impose security, justice and effective administration. There are further reasons for alarm. A smaller guerilla group, the ELN, shows no serious interest in peace; it may recruit FARC renegades and will have to be fought. Further to this, criminal gangs whose leaders emerged from right-wing paramilitary groups, which demobilised a decade ago, are growing in strength.
Unfortunately, the peace agreement comes when Colombia is facing a sharp economic adjustment. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) expects the economy to grow by only 2.5% this year, compared with 4.4% last year. To fill a hole in government revenues caused by the oil slump, Mr Santos is preparing to raise taxes later this year. His opponents bridle at the notion of paying taxes to help the FARC. But as Mr Santos says, war is more expensive than peace. That Colombia’s conflict has long been an anachronism does not make it any easier to end. Peace with the FARC will improve the lives of Colombians, especially those in remote rural areas. However late in the day, it is a big prize.