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Ambitious and Cautious Peace Prospects in Colombia

Camilo Ucrós By Camilo Ucrós Published on July 11, 2016
This article was updated on September 12, 2016
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By Camilo Ucrós

After more than 50 years of omnipresent conflict throughout countryside and cities, June 22nd 2016 saw the announcement of a bilateral ceasefire between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, and an imminent signature of peace agreements. Although the truce had seemed inevitable for some time, it was still expected that negotiations would polarize a population that has seen almost all sectors of Colombian society affected by the conflict, either directly or indirectly. Those opposed to the negotiations argued that the state had never before held upper hand in the military struggle. Now that it did, it could apply further pressure to what they consider a mere terrorist gang, leading to a prompt surrender.

On the other side, advocates for peace put forth that violence perpetuates violence and, more importantly, that physically exterminating the guerrillas would offer no solution to the underlying causes of the political violence the country has experienced throughout the 20th century. Some problems have not improved, but worsened; wealth and land inequality have increased, lack of political participation persists and the different regions, rather than being integrated, have only grown more isolated. These issues have worsened as a result of the length of the conflict, the lack of government presence in the territory, and the lukewarm initiatives to address them.

While recognizing that the FARC strayed from its original revolutionary aims over the course of the war, the peace negotiations were a valuable opportunity for the organization to become relevant again given the pressing issues Colombia faces right now. In this regard, both government and guerrillas have succeeded, at least on paper.

The negotiations in La Habana, Cuba, aimed to address the victims of the conflict, and delivered an ambitious plan to do so on six different fronts. In terms of access to the land, the parties have compromised regarding organizing the distribution of seized territories among landless campesinos, connecting them with professionals with know-how and accessible credit to boost the crop yields of the land. The parties will also sponsor programs for rural development, focusing on education and health while trying to rebuild communal ties within and among communities. In the realm of political participation, the FARC negotiated both their transformation into a legitimate political party that will be eligible to run for public office and an eventual reformation of the electoral process to better represent the constituents of Colombia. A comprehensive plan is underway to undermine the drug cartels: this will include awareness campaigns to educate drug consumers and incentives to shift the production of crops away from coca and poppies and into more commercial subsistence production.

Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of the agreements is its reparations for victims of the conflict. The first important step was that both parties recognized themselves as human rights violators. The next challenge was defining the victims. The now-active Victims' Law recognizes victims as either those who were directly harmed by the conflict, or their families, from January 1985 onwards.

Victims have the right to different forms of compensation such as help finding jobs, indemnification, financial credit, land, access to physical and mental health experts, and educational programs. Those who were affected prior to 1985 have only a right to symbolic reparations. Though this might appear to be an arbitrary date, it was chosen for practical purposes, given the sheer quantity of victims: 220,000 deaths, most of them civilians, and more than 6 million people internally displaced. 

Another ambitious project is digging up past violations to be heard by the Truth Commission, which will interview both victims and aggressors to learn what happened during the conflict. This is reminiscent of South Africa’s process after the end of apartheid, with public hearings about the experiences of the different participants in the civil war. The idea is to write a shared confessional narrative of the history of Colombia, which will hopefully galvanize reconciliation within the Colombian nation.

Those who committed crimes will receive reduced sentences if they confess to their participation in such events—if it is discovered that the entire truth has not been told, it could mean up to 20 years in prison. While some claim that the processes of recollection could lead to further resentment, the example of the aftermath of the Guatemalan and Salvadoran civil wars show otherwise.

In both countries, the government blocked initiatives to search for the truth, instead passing sweeping amnesty laws with the idea that forgetting past resentment would project the countries into the future rather than holding them back. Today Guatemala and El Salvador are two of the most violent countries in the world, in part because unresolved personal experiences have been neither forgotten nor forgiven, and resentment can be inherited within the private sphere of sorrow. The process of reconciliation is fragile and must be dealt with carefully.

Other critics argue, with good reason, that the process is not punitive enough according to constitutional law. The model of transitional justice under which both guerrilleros and agents of the state will be judged recognizes that this is an exceptional moment inviting exceptional responses. Transitional justice proposes that punishment for crimes be made in the form of reparation for victims: helping with the eradication of illicit crops, locating and eliminating anti personnel mines, and working to rebuild the social fabric of society.

For the FARC this is an appealing option, as it means they will not have to spend time in prison and, in carrying out social work, they can begin to build a base for future political endeavors. It is also an incentive for its members to stick with their community and not engage with splinter groups. While the extreme right argues that the measures are too lax, these procedures are more substantive than the impunity that was seen after the South African and Irish peace and reconciliation processes. However, there are still important points to define, particularly how the accords will be implemented. It is expected that the formal agreement will be signed in Bogotá by the government and FARC representatives as early as July 20th, Colombia's independence day.

The accords are not perfect for either side. After all, both had to cede ground in the negotiations, but they are a fair starting point. With the violence coming to a halt, the country can turn its attention to the myriad problems that remain: peace with the National Liberation Army (ELN), dealing with drug cartels and organized crime, urban and rural development, and increasing competition in international markets… From here, it’s the role of Colombian society as a whole, rather than just the government’s and the FARC’s, to oversee of the fulfillment of the agreements so that good intentions translate into active policies.




    History teacher based in Ecuador. Enjoys literature, discovering new music and the stories history tells. Follow on twitter @camucros

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