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Colombia’s modest peace

BOMBOLO, Colombia – While Syria’s civil war and political crises in Thailand and Ukraine continue to dominate the headlines, Colombia’s government, led by President Juan Manuel Santos, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) may be about to end the longest and most brutal conflict in Latin America’s history. An agreement would enable Colombia – an important regional ally of the United States – to shift its attention and resources to economic and social development.

The latest series of talks – held in Havana, and mediated by Cuba and Norway – was launched in November 2012. Despite some setbacks, the process has raised hope of a permanent end to the 50-year conflict, which has displaced at least five million people and led to more than 200,000 deaths (an estimated 85 percent of them civilians), with 23,161 selective killings, 25,007 forced disappearances, 27,023 kidnappings, and 1,982 massacres.

Of course, this is not the parties’ first attempt to forge a peace agreement. In the late 1990’s, President Andrés Pastrana’s government met with the guerrillas – along with representatives from the United Nations and from Cuba, Spain, France, Switzerland, Brazil, and other countries – in a demilitarized area of Colombia to pursue an agreement.

But the talks faced considerable headwinds. The United States never believed in the process, and undermined it at every opportunity. Moreover, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who rose to power in 1999, viewed the FARC as a natural partner in an eventual new alliance of left-wing forces in the Andes. With Europe offering only empty promises, and the U.N. unsure of how to catalyze progress on the talks’ ambitious 12-point agenda (which included more than 100 items), the effort collapsed in 2002.

Fortunately, much has changed in the last decade. For starters, meeting outside of Colombia has enabled the parties to avoid the pressure and manipulation that contributed to the breakdown of talks the last time.

Furthermore, the U.S. – hesitant to face yet another foreign-policy disruption, much less offer assistance or deploy troops, and facing other hotspots where vital national interests are more at stake – has contributed, albeit discreetly, to a negotiated settlement. Likewise, since the final years of Chávez and during Nicolás Maduro’s tenure, Venezuela has played a far more constructive role in promoting peace, recognizing that the hostile neighborhood created by the Colombian conflict is impeding its own progress. (The U.N., the European Union, and the Union of South American Nations, focusing on other priorities, have avoided becoming collectively involved.)

Finally, this time, the negotiations are more manageable in scope, focusing on five specific issues: an agrarian-development policy, the FARC’s political participation, ending the conflict (demobilization and transitional justice), reparations for the victims, and curbing the illicit drug trade. Any agreement must cover all five.

So far, both sides have been realistic, avoiding ideological or formalist postures – in part, a reflection of the new balance of forces. In the 1990’s, the FARC was on the rise, and presented a maximalist list of demands. Today, the guerrillas are significantly weaker, allowing Santos’ government to offer a minimalist agreement that can satisfy both the Colombian establishment, which backs the process but without much conviction, and a fatigued and mercurial public that wants peace but remains unwilling to accept too many concessions to the FARC.

General agreements have already been reached on the first two issues – agrarian development and the FARC’s political participation – though some key details have yet to be settled. To facilitate continued progress, the parties have delayed the more delicate issues – ending the conflict and the question of reparations – while focusing first on halting illegal drug production, an issue on which the two sides’ positions are much closer. Indeed, the FARC’s proposal – centered on protecting the rural farmers who make their living cultivating illicit crops, including by establishing a legal market for such crops – is relatively moderate.

In fact, the FARC’s influence on drug trafficking has waned considerably in recent years, as the large cartels that once dominated Colombia’s narcotics industry have given way to numerous smaller criminal organizations, led by warlords associated with far-right political forces. The result has been a sort of pax mafiosa: consolidated, regionally legitimized actors, with drug traffickers, old paramilitary groups, new criminal bands, large landholders, and political caciques reinforcing one another.

Barring a major event – say, an assassination of a major figure, a large-scale military attack, or a significant split within the political elite or the FARC leadership – the negotiations are likely to continue. After all, a rupture would be extremely costly to both sides.

But there is one potential obstacle that cannot be avoided: the May presidential election. Santos needs to be re-elected in order to sideline former President Álvaro Uribe, who, along with recalcitrant civilian and military elements, is trying to undermine the negotiations. That requires that the talks progress steadily, and that the FARC remains reliable and united. But the FARC will not hand Santos the speedy agreement that would ease his path to victory, and he knows that the flag of peace will not ensure his re-election.

In the first round of the 2010 presidential election – in which only 49 percent of the electorate participated – Santos obtained 47 percent of the vote. Today, while Santos is ahead in the polls, a considerable share of voters remains undecided, with low expected turnout further clouding his prospects for re-election.

Moreover, the talks’ outstanding issues are intricate, especially the question of compensating the conflict’s victims. There is always the risk that the armed actors, both the guerrillas and the military, could obstruct progress on this crucial matter.

Despite these challenges, there is much reason to hope that this time an agreement will be reached. Even a modest and fragile peace would represent a major advance for Colombia’s democracy and economic prospects.

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is Director of the Department of Political Science and International Studies at Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires.

© Project Syndicate, 2014

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