Colombia: Prospects for Peace

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the inauguration for his second term on Aug. 7, 2014. (Photo: Luis Ruiz Tito/Presidencia Rep├║blica Dominicana)

Intertwined with the drug war, 50 years of civil war has raged between Colombia's government and its largest guerilla organization, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The conflict has left thousands dead, millions displaced. Plan Colombia, the bilateral U.S. and Colombian military action launched in 1999, cost billions but failed to meet its six-year objective to disempower rebels and narco-traffickers. Five out of the six presidencies since 1982 have attempted peace efforts with this Marxist armed group, and while small agreements have been forged, the internal conflict has continued. Yet it may now finally be coming to an end.

For the past three years, President Juan Manuel Santos has been heading the most effective peace negotiations to date. While many have welcomed this development, one of Santos’ greatest adversaries in the peace process is the man who used to be his boss, former President Álvaro Uribe. Uribe was president from 2002 to 2010, and in 2006 Santos became Uribe's defense minister, leading his administration's efforts to combat the FARC. Now that Santos is negotiating with the rebels, Uribe decries Santos' peace efforts as "traitorous actions."

Challenges and successes in fighting for peace

Santos and the FARC have been negotiating in Havana, Cuba, since August 2012, seeking a "general agreement ending conflict and building a stable and lasting peace." Six fundamentals are on the table: comprehensive agricultural development, political participation that would permit FARC members legal representative legitimacy, an end to armed conflict, a solution to the problem of illicit drug trade and production, victim’s rights and compensation, and upholding and enforcing the consequential peace accords.

The peace process has already produced important agreements on land reform, drug trafficking and political participation of former guerrillas. On March 7, the two sides announced a joint plan to clear landmines planted by the FARC. However, where there has been progress, there have also been setbacks and disagreements throughout the three-year process. Ceasefires have been gained and lost, and promises have been broken by each side. For example, a violation of terms by both parties occurred in November when General Rubén Dario Alzate encroached upon FARC territory and was subsequently kidnapped. Wrought with contradictions, this internal conflict continues as the government rationalizes its military actions as necessitated constitutionally while the FARC responds in kind with a rationale of survival.

While Santos strives to make his legacy that of a principe de la paz (“prince of peace”), the FARC aims for recognition as a legitimate political force. Should Santos have success with these peace negotiations, he will have legitimized a new political party for the FARC, the very group he fought so fiercely against as defense minister under Uribe.

Past alliance, present opposition

Uribe’s war against the FARC has deep roots, and it is personal. Since his father was assassinated by the FARC in the early 1980s, he has been engrossed in eliminating leftist armed rebels, even using rebels from the right, such as the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), to battle them. As head of state, his war on these rebel forces was amplified as the United States aided and abetted his efforts through Plan Colombia. Santos was Uribe's handpicked presidential successor in 2010, and now that Santos has reversed Uribe's hardline course, Uribe feels betrayed by his former minister of defense. "He convinced the world that Colombia must choose between war and dialogue,” the Uribe has accused. “Santos betrayed his promise to continue our policy.”

Since Santos ascended to the presidency, he has hardly looked back, placing peace at the center of his mission. In his inaugural speech following his election in 2010, Santos, who advised Uribe’s anti-FARC policies and the actions that led to the Colombian-Venezuelan diplomatic crisis and the 2008 Ecuadorian invasion, reestablished amiable relations with Venezuela and Ecuador and soon after announced the plan to negotiate with the FARC. In his reelection campaign last year, Santos doubled down on the message, asserting that peace above all was key. The strategy worked. For it was only in this way that Santos was able to unite natural political enemies—from the center-left’s Polo Democratico party to the center-right’s Cambio Radical Party — into one cause and one motive most Colombians have craved for half a century.

Placing distance between himself and his predecessor, from the outset Santos befriended anti-Uribe states and politicians alike. Moreover, investigations are currently being leveled against Uribe and numerous cohorts for war crimes, espionage, assassinations and corruption. While Uribe wages political battles of his own, he has denounced Santos' efforts, often from the platform of Twitter. Although Uribe is out of office, he still maintains powerful ties with Colombia's military and business community, and is backed by a loyal following of uribistas. Uribe also spent his time in office developing strong military ties to the United States, which in his mind are being undone by abandoning a militant front.

Peace and progress above all

In 2014, Colombia saw its lowest homicide rate in 34 years. And in recent years, the country has attracted businesses, foreign investment and even ex-patriots looking for a second home. Santos aims to usher in an era of development, foreign investment and economic growth. "Today we can speak about peace because Colombia is growing and opening to the world," he said in an official message. At a time when we see leaders beating the war drums across the world as a way to spur nationalism and drum up support (Putin in Russia, Netanyahu in Israel), Santos remains committed to waking Colombia from its long and violent nightmare, regardless of the opposition he faces along the way.

Aside from the opposition he has encountered, Santos has also seen significant support from his war-weary citizens. In March, processions marched through Bogotá and other Colombian cities in support of the peace process. Santos spoke to a crowd of hundreds of thousands in Bogotá, calling for an end to conflict. Consuelo Gonzalez de Perdomo, a former FARC hostage, said, "The only thing Colombians long for is a peaceful and reconciled future." Santos and the FARC aren't there yet, but the progress they've made is unprecedented.

Ailana Navarez is a writer, photographer and political analyst with a concentration in Latin America. She is pursuing a major in government with a specialization in international relations and a minor in psychology at Harvard Extension School. She is a South America regional specialist for Pulsamerica (a UK-based Latin America analysis firm) and has been featured in several international magazines and news outlets, including Telesur, Mercury Magazine and Casa Rosada.

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