Last fall, the Colombian government and FARC rebels signed a historic peace deal. The accord ended 52 years of conflict. More than 7,000 rebels are now in the process of giving up their arms under U.N. supervision.
Student fellow Sarah Drory spoke to Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, to get a sense of what’s ahead for the country.
FPI: For someone just starting to research Colombia’s struggle for peace, how would you describe the origins of the conflict and where it stands today in the context of country’s political systems, history, culture?
The conflict that went on for more than half a century was rooted in land inequalities and overlaid with communist ideology. The largely rural-based insurgency transformed overtime. From the mid 90’s on, it become heavily interwoven with the cultivation, processing, and eventual trafficking of illegal drugs.
The government of President Juan Manuel Santos, first elected in 2010, made it a principal objective to end the armed conflict through political negotiations. Those peace talks started in 2012 and took place over a period of four years in Havana, Cuba, leading to the signing of the peace agreement in 2016. The peace agreement was submitted to a popular vote last fall and was rejected by a narrow majority of Colombian voters. This led to some additional tweaks in the accord that were submitted to the Colombian Congress, but not to another popular vote.
FPI: How did you first become involved in Latin American foreign policy and more specifically, your work on Colombia and conflict resolution?
I first became involved in Latin America at a time when many South American and Central American countries were ruled by military dictatorships. The concern was for human rights and for ending dictatorship and transitioning to civilian rule. Forty years later, the region is vastly different, but many key challenges remain: strengthening democratic institutions, broadening social and economic inclusion, and building transparency.
FPI: What are the challenges for transitional justice and the implementation of the peace agreement? Recommendations?
The two things are not the same. There are major challenges to accord implementation; only one of them has to do with the credibility of the transitional justice process, even though that issue was especially contentious. Critics argued that those aspects of the agreement amounted to impunity for the FARC and that FARC members would not go to jail. But the accord does, in fact, envision jail time for those who do not come forward and confess their involvement in human rights atrocities and illegal activities, including drug trafficking. The implementation of the transitional justice mechanism is only now getting underway. A panel of international legal experts are making recommendations as to who should serve on that tribunal.
The FARC combatants—slightly over 7,000 of them—are gathered in what are called concentration zones, of which there are 23 around the country. The combatants have turned back their weapons to United Nations observers and there is an ongoing effort to locate, confiscate, and destroy over 900 caches of weapons that have been distributed throughout the country, especially in remote areas that are hard to reach and also heavily mined. So, the disarmament effort is ongoing.
There is another deadline on August 1, which is the date by which the FARC has to reveal its financial assets, from drug trafficking and other kinds of criminal activity like kidnapping and extortion.
The challenges to implementation are enormous and involve, for example, a massive effort in rural development, including alternative development to wean families away from coca cultivation with other forms of productive activity. There is a need to provide infrastructure and build tertiary roads that will link remote communities to the legal economy. There is the need to establish the presence of the state, not only in security terms, but in terms of social services—public health, education—in these remote areas where the FARC was present and where criminal groups still vie for control.
It’s also a major challenge to break the cycles of violence in Colombian politics, in which one form of violence transforms or simply morphs into another form of violence. There are multiple challenges in this regard—to keep FARC commanders from joining other illegal armed groups, whether guerrillas or groups of organized crime; to demobilize the remaining guerilla insurgency of the ELN; and to reduce the power and territorial presence of criminal groups known by the acronym “BACRIM,” which stands for bandas criminales, some of which are successors to paramilitary organizations active in the 1980s and ‘90s.
FPI: In May, President Santos and President Trump met in the White House to discuss a number of pressing issues and just a few weeks ago, you hosted a discussion with VP Mike Pence on Latin American foreign policy. What is your assessment of the new administration’s approach to US- Colombian relations?
I’ll start with Colombia. There has been a reduction in this year’s foreign aid request for Colombia, at a time when U.S. resources are certainly under great pressure. But the need to consolidate the peace process is an important concern. Funding for Colombia was not cut as drastically as some other parts of the foreign aid budget. But the reduction nonetheless limits the ability of the U.S. government to support rural development projects and other needs that have only multiplied since the end of the war with the FARC.
There is a great deal of concern – both in the administration and the Congress – about the record increase in coca cultivation in Colombia. This will be, I think, the number one issue as Congress looks at Colombia in terms of what to fund and how to fund. Up to now, Colombia has been a bipartisan issue. There is some hope that in this coming year, these levels will not be reduced dramatically, given all the new challenges and commitments that Colombia faces.
FPI: How do think the peace agreement will factor into Colombia’s election cycle?
What’s interesting is that public opinion polls have shown that implementing the peace agreement with the FARC and achieving peace with the ELN – the remaining guerilla group – is a minimal concern. About five percent of the public sees this as the principal problem that the next president will face. Most people think that reducing unemployment, improving the quality of healthcare, and attacking corruption, are the most important tasks for the new government. If you combine these three issues, you see that about two-thirds of the Colombian electorate care more about these issues than they do about peace with the guerrillas. So there’s an enormous disconnect between the discourse of politicians and the concerns of the Colombian public. So, whichever candidate can best give voice to the principal concerns has a really important leg up in the campaign.
FPI: Is there a sense of optimism about the transition to justice?
Overall, there is a great deal of skepticism that the FARC will be able to live up to its commitments. There is also a great deal of skepticism that the government will be able to implement what it has pledged to do. Also, there’s overall fatigue in thinking about peace and having that issue dominate national politics. At the same time, there are certain sectors of the population that are very enthusiastic about the opportunity that peace presents, as well as another sector of the population that thinks the peace agreement is tantamount to treason, that Colombia is being delivered to castro-chavismo.
FPI: Any book/film recommendations for people hoping to learn more?
There are so many good books on Colombia that have come out in English in the last 10 years or so. I would be remiss to not include my own book, Comparative Peace Processes in Latin America. (Stanford, 1999), but also books written or edited by John Otis, Marco Palacios, Virginia Bouvier, and others.
For Spanish speakers, the news magazine Semana and the website La Silla Vacía has outstanding coverage. The Fundación Ideas para la Paz also publishes excellent resources.
FPI: What advice do you have for fellow and upcoming interrupters?
Fight like hell for equality at the table and for others around the world to be given the same opportunities and respect.