The government of Colombia and Marxist guerrillas signed a peace agreement last week that ended more than five decades of civil war. The deal followed nearly four years of difficult negotiations; Cuba played a crucial role in mediating the talks. The agreement includes a detailed timeline that identifies the steps needed to truly halt the bloody conflict. The deal now goes to the Colombian people for their endorsement. While approval is not guaranteed — there is great bitterness among parts of Colombian society — the agreement should be passed. It is long past time to end this bitter struggle.
The war began in 1964, when rebels, inspired by the revolution in Cuba, took up arms to forcibly redistribute Colombia’s wealth. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by the Spanish acronym FARC) has waged a bloody war ever since, taking territory, creating virtual no-go zones, attacking government forces and kidnapping high-profile citizens, such as Ingrid Betancourt, then a presidential candidate, who was held for six years before she was freed by a military rescue operation.
FARC’s income has been supplemented by trafficking in cocaine, along with the extortion of businesses in areas where it is strong. Its forces have been augmented by children who were seized and forced to become soldiers. International organizations accuse FARC soldiers of human rights abuses, frequently against civilians. It has been designated a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union, but that had little impact on its operations. The result has been a 52-year insurgency that claimed 220,000 lives and displaced an estimated 5 million people — 10 percent of the population.
The fighting has been punctuated by several attempts to secure a peace agreement. In 1984, the two sides agreed on a ceasefire that yielded the release of imprisoned rebels. That truce collapsed six years later when government offensives killed several thousand former fighters. A second attempt was launched in 2002, when the president of Colombia offered the guerrillas a part of the country equal in size to Switzerland. That effort failed when the rebels tried to strengthen their negotiating position by launching their own offensives.
Talks began again in August 2012, and genuine negotiations commenced several months later in Havana. Cuba’s role was central to the success of the deal. Apart from providing the inspiration for the initial insurgency, Cuba has been a revolutionary icon and guiding light for leftwing movements throughout Latin America. Yet despite its revolutionary rhetoric, the Cuban leadership — and the Castro brothers in particular — have been pushing leftists in recent years to use ballots, rather than bullets, to secure political advances. Reportedly, Fidel Castro directly intervened at one point in preliminary talks to help smooth over problems between FARC’s top leader and a Colombian government representative, while his brother Raul presided over the talks themselves.
Cuba also offered a convenient place for the two sides to meet — neutral territory that both sides could get to fairly easily — and the government’s control of the media meant that sensitive discussions could be kept secret.
The deal agreed last week was signed by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC leadership, and provides a final document with a timeline for key steps toward real peace: disarmament, demobilization, political participation, and exiting from the illegal drug trade. The government also agreed to carry out land reform, develop poor rural areas and to protect politicians from the pro-FARC party. That last step is critical because a similar attempt by the guerrillas to join national politics — part of the 1984 ceasefire — was scuttled when right-wing hit squad targeted their representatives and thousands were killed.
The entire country will vote on the accord on Oct. 2. While Colombians are weary of war, passage is by no means guaranteed. President Santos is not popular and there is great anger toward FARC for the savagery with which it fought the war and its criminal activities. Many Colombians feel that the soldiers are getting off too easy for their crimes — if they confess they will get reduced sentences such as community service or relaxed confinement on agricultural coops. Opinion polls show a deeply divided country, although the most recent survey had nearly two-thirds of respondents backing the deal. If the public rejects the agreement, the ceasefire is over.
Even approval does not guarantee peace. Two generations of Colombians have grown up in civil war and it is not clear how some of them will adjust. A smaller guerrilla group continues to battle the government and there are fears that groups that used FARC or the government to legitimate their own illegal behavior — such as right-wing militias — will continue their own fights.
Some hardliners note that the number of rebels has been shrinking; they forget how resilient they have been. Full-scale offensives have not broken the back of the movement; they have triggered furious retaliation, however. The best hope for peace is an agreement that disarms and demobilizes the rebels, trains their supporters, and gives them and their followers a genuine voice in Colombian politics.
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