Colombians Debate their Future: Contextualizing the Peace Process
Be honest: When I say Colombia, what do you think of?
Some of you may have thought about a University in New York (spelled differently, by the way), Sofia Vergara, or Shakira. Others may have thought about their morning coffee.
But, I would be surprised if at least more than a few did not immediately think about cocaine, kidnappings, or the face of Pablo Escobar.
In a historical context, the image that persists of Colombia is not all that unreasonable. There was a time during the 1980s and 1990s when the country faced the very real possibility of becoming a failed state as it battled first the Medellin and then the Cali drug cartels that controlled the vast majority of the cocaine market in both the United States and Europe. Episodes such as the assassination of half of the Justices of the Supreme Court of Colombia have been dramatized in television shows such as Netflix’s Narcos.
In addition to drug traffickers, the government of Colombia has also long been fighting a war against left-wing guerrilla forces such as the FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), which have controlled vast rural areas for decades. After four years of negotiations, Colombia and FARC have announced a peace agreement that must be ratified by voters in a plebiscite on October 2nd. The news of peace has not been universally cheered by everyone within the country, despite the prospect of an end to hostilities. Chief among the opposition is Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s former president, who told the World Policy Journal in 2014: “It is a risky step. Behind the beautiful word of ‘peace’ the government and FARC have many risky agreements for the rule of law for the country.”
Before considering the peace accord, it is necessary to gain a basic understanding of Colombian history. Without such context, it is impossible to understand how the country has been such a beacon for violence in its modern history.
A unique economic background
Just as it was “about the water” in 1974’s Chinatown, a film about the development of Los Angeles, in Colombia it’s ‘about the land.’ During the period of Spanish colonization, much of the rural land in Colombia went unclaimed by Westerners, with Spanish settlements concentrated in the Caribbean (first established in places like Cartagena and Santa Marta) and the areas of the highest altitude, the Andean region sweeping the county’s center, where the weather was much more temperate (this is where most urban centers are today, including the capital Bogota).
Because of this pattern of settlement, at the time of independence from Spain substantial amounts of land were owned by the government. Gran Colombia initially declared independence in 1819, but much like the United States following its independence, the country intensely debated the appropriate balance of federalism and centralization. Gran Colombia ultimately disintegrated into multiple states that are today: Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama (Colombia and Panama were a single country until the construction of the Panama Canal close to a century later.)
There was relatively little hope of any government establishing effective control of rural areas within the country because effective travel and communication were so expensive and challenging. Even today, air travel is the most effective means of easily traversing the country. The social and economic composition of post-colonial Colombia was deeply divided as well, with slave labor being employed in gold mining and a system of sharecropping employed within cattle and crop production. For most of the nineteenth century, there was little industrialization within Colombia’s economy or class mobility, although on the whole the country did fairly well compared to Brazil and Mexico in increasing average living standards over the period, if not in comparison to the southern portion of the continent (Chile and Argentina) or to wealthier countries in Europe or the United States, between 1820 and 1870.
Historical data on income inequality can be difficult to come by, but one study on Cundinamarca (a state within Colombia) completed by MIT economists in 2007 estimated that the land GINI in the area in the late 19th century was 0.86 compared to 0.58 in the United States in 1860. The GINI coefficient measures a distribution, typically of metrics such as income or assets, where a GINI of 1 means a completely unequal distribution and a GINI of 0 means a completely
Although Colombia industrialized later than North American or European nations did, global industrialization had a profound impact on Colombia because it spurred increasing demand for coffee. Between the 1870s and 1920s, coffee rose from 8 percent of Colombian exports to 75 percent. Coffee tends to grow best in areas of high elevation that are not prone to frost but also receive a significant amount of rain. The coffee-growing zones of Quindio, Caldas, and Risaralda were among the best suited in the world to grow coffee for those reasons and today are often called the coffee triangle.
Some of the poor in Colombia sensed opportunity since coffee could be grown on small plots of land and they fanned out amongst the government-owned land in the new coffee-growing region. The larger estate owners within Colombia saw the growth of coffee in a different way, as they had been searching for a reliable cash crop for decades after failing to be competitive in other endeavors such as leather production. It was this tension – between extremely poor tenant farmers searching for opportunity and wealthier estate owners looking to consolidate plots of land into large coffee estates – that began to sow the seeds of rural violence.
A unique political background
At the same time as these economic trends were taking place, Colombia had a unique political backdrop as well. The Liberal and Conservative political parties took hold during the 19th century and shockingly remained the primary political parties longer than any others in Latin America. Both parties were formed before 1840 and maintained their collective grip on politics until 2002. The Conservative Party traditionally relied on support from the Catholic Church and wealthier landowners, while the Liberal Party was more likely to find support among urban artisans and rural peasants. The Liberal Party also stood for federalism versus the centralization espoused among The Conservative Party. Conflict and violence were frequent.
Between 1861 and 1886, the Liberal Party dominated politics in Colombia and enacted policies that strengthened the pre-existing legal separation of Church and State as well as ratifying a Constitution in 1863 that reformed the country into a confederation of nine states, weakening the central government in Bogota. As it was to become a pattern in Colombian politics, the Liberal Party over-pressed its advantages while in power, particularly in its hostile demeanor towards the Catholic Church. In the end, though, it was easy for everyone to see that the reforms launched by the Liberal Party in this period of time did not improve life for most people. By the 1880s a new coalition was formed that would bring the Conservative Party into power along with a new Constitution in 1886.
Once again, the politicians moved too aggressively. Rather than seeking a balanced platform of future stability, Rafael Nuñez, the Colombian president, adopted a system of extreme decentralization and created a system of excessive centralization. Whereas before, each of the nine departments of the Confederation were close to independent states with their own presidents, the president of Colombia now appointed the Governors of each department as well as the Mayor of Bogota. Nuñez also instituted policies to once again expand the influence of the Church.
The Conservative domination of politics that began in 1886 lasted until 1930 and survived a Civil War with the Liberal Party from 1899-1903 (the War of a Thousand Days), the loss of Panama, and the broadening of the Party to include some conservative members of the Liberal Party. In 1930, the Party split, which opened up the path for a Liberal president: Olaya Herrera. Herrera’s Liberalism was much different than the previous period of liberalism marked by Federalism and instead was focused on government incentives to industrialize and develop infrastructure. The Liberal Party lost power in 1946 because the party was divided between the more traditional liberalism that they had been promoting and the ideas of a charismatic populist named Jorge Eliecer Gaitán Ayala.
Although the real sin of Colombian politics between 1861 and 1946 was that a true center was never developed, but rather an alternating pendulum of liberals and conservatives that developed a culture of mistrust and revenge, and a system where the spoils belonged to the victor.
Some elements of the extraordinarily violent Civil War known as La Violencia came into focus in 1946, but the spark that engulfed Colombia in an orgasm of violence was the 1948 assassination of Gaitán. Although conspiracy theories persist, it seems very likely that Gaitán was not assassinated for political reasons but by the mentally ill Roa Sierra.
The story of the assassination of Gaitán continues to be an interesting one (for example, Fidel Castro was present at the assassination and conspiracists claim that the Soviet Union was responsible.) What is certain is the assassination set off an explosion of a decade of violence. After rioting in Bogota was quickly ended, violence moved to rural areas, where it stayed.
The violence, though, did not occur in the manner that would be expected. Rather than being a national war of liberal vs. conservative, it was more a series of local wars with the sides determined by who held local power. The wealthiest rural areas were where most of the violence took place, as that was the area (in the Andean region) where who controlled the land was most consequential. Perhaps because of a historical lack of centralization, politicians could not control the fighting occurring throughout the country and the military was needed to restore order.
It is important to understand the nature of the violence in Colombia during this time. The BBC estimates that between 250,000 and 300,000 people died in the conflict, making it the third-worst violent catastrophe in the Western Hemisphere in number of lives lost behind the U.S. Civil War and the Mexican Revolution. While the deaths as a percentage of the population did not rival the Mexican Revolution, the ~2.5 percent of Colombians that died was a higher percentage than Americans who died in the United States’ Civil War (2 percent). The manner in which murder was carried out illustrated the depths of hatred that was developing in the country – the Colombian necktie, crucifixion, the bleeding to death slowly of opponents – these have more in common with ISIS today than civilized culture.
The conflict was ostensibly resolved in 1958, when a National Front was formed between the two parties that lasted until 1974, and called for power-sharing where the presidency would alternate between parties every four years.
You can call this peacemaking if you wish, but it is not democracy. It would be the equivalent today of the Republican Primary selecting the President of the United States because Barack Obama, a Democrat, is the outgoing president.
Among those groups that were marginalized in the process were those that did not fall within the mainstream of either political party, including far-left and Marxist rural organizations.
FARC and other guerilla movements
The period around 1960 in Colombia was a coincidence of left-wing guerillas feeling shut-out of traditional politics with Che Guevera and Fidel Castro (guerilla fighters) emerging as heroes to the groups after successfully taking over the government of Cuba.
Communist groups faced attacks from the government in Bogota, that was making an effort to finally resolve the lack of order in the countryside. Instead, these groups coalesced under the auspices of demanding land reform by 1964. FARC is the most notorious of these groups and the only other one with continued meaning today is the ELN (National Liberation Army). The formation of the FARC occurred through a stream of forces colliding with each other: the unequal distribution of rural lands, the political competition between Liberals and Conservatives, the lack of a strong and centralized Colombian government, and the marginalization of non-mainstream ideologies following the creation of the National Front.
It is important to separate the aims and origins of groups such as FARC (which always seem noble) from the pain they have inflicted on ordinary Colombians for decades. The aims of the original founders of FARC pertained to land reform and the empowerment of the rural poor through a Marxist/Leninist ideology. In practice, they routinely use child labor to support their forces, rape, and torture untold numbers of women, and leave landmines across the countryside for innocent victims to stumble upon. Human Rights Watch reported on a specific case in 2014 that personalizes this violence. It occurred in the city of Tumaco, on the Pacific coast, against Monica Julieth Pernia Cortes, a mother of three young children. She left her home one night in June, telling her children she would be right back. She never came home. Her tortured, bound, and sexually assaulted body was found floating in the water the next day. Those in the neighborhood said they could hear her scream for about an hour before there was silence.
In a less personal way, FARC has funded its operations through drug trafficking and kidnappings. Although they often had a contentious relationship with the cartels, following their demise they became the largest drug traffickers in the country.
If you want to read more about FARC’s atrocities, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations have plenty to depress you. It is enough to say that no one should confuse these groups with anything noble.
It was probably only a matter of time before right-wing paramilitary groups which are equally ignoble as are the left-wing groups such as FARC, arrived on the scene.
The original paramilitary organizations were established at the suggestion of United States’ advisors, who thought it a key step in defeating the rising guerilla organizations. Other groups were established such as police forces by the drug cartels to protect themselves; after all, a small elite of rich drug lords isn’t exactly a part of a Marxist utopia. Elements of the Colombian government and military have had close relationships with various paramilitary groups, whose human rights violations have been numerous over recent decades.
The Castaño family, victims of FARC violence, formed one of the most notorious paramilitary groups in the 1980s and in 1997 played a role in coalescing many groups into the AUC.
Plan Colombia and the election of Alvaro Uribe
Towards the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the United States decided to begin a program of financial aid to Colombia in an effort to strengthen the government and win the battle against paramilitary groups such as FARC and the AUC and dramatically decrease the amount of cocoa produced in Colombia. Under Plan Colombia, the country initially received more than $800 million and continues to receive about $300 million per year in foreign aid.
Against the backdrop of Plan Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, former Governor of Antioquia, became president of Colombia in 2002. No one initially gave him a chance to win, particularly since he was no longer a member of either major political party. His victory was likely due to voter frustration over the then stalled peace talks between FARC and Colombia.
Without question, Uribe’s presidency changed the situation in the country drastically. One historic breakthrough was the end of the political monopoly that the Conservative and Liberal Parties had held for more than 150 years.
As president, Uribe negotiated peace with the AUC. Importantly, the agreement did not call for punishment of the top officials within the organization. He then ramped up the military pressure on left-wing groups such as FARC, substantially weakening their ability to operate. Uribe correctly understood that the only way to secure a favorable peace was to demonstrate that the guerillas could never win through violence. While he was not able to deliver decisive blows, the offensives that he launched reduced the number of FARC members from 20,000 to 8,000 and the number of ELN members from 3,500 to 1,500.
The dark side to this is that it seems that in stepping up the pressure on left-wing guerillas, Uribe is likely responsible indirectly for crimes against humanity. For one, his relationship with right-wing paramilitaries has long been the subject of speculation. Secondly, when a bounty was paid to Colombian military personnel for the killing or capture of FARC or ELN members, individuals in the military would at times lure mentally ill individuals in order to present them as members of guerrilla groups to earn a bounty, a scandal that came to be called “Falsos positivos.”
Despite this, when he left office in 2010, he was widely popular and was succeeded by Juan Manuel Santos, who was a part of Uribe’s Cabinet ( the Minister of National Defense) and his preferred successor. Santos is still the president of Colombia and he has finally announced the successful completion of an agreement with FARC after spending years in negotiations following Uribe’s successful weakening of the organization.
Voters in Colombia will have a choice to make on October 2nd of this year regarding whether or not they want to support the peace deal negotiated with FARC.
The major components of the deal include an agreement whereby the FARC will disarm and renounce violence as a means of achieving political ends. In return, by confessing past crimes FARC members will largely avoid jail time and have the opportunity to participate in the political process, with assurances that they will not be extradited to the United States.
Some polling shows that the “Yes” vote will dominate, while others are more ambiguous. Shortly after the announcement that there would be some kind of a plebiscite, Gallup polls showed 70 percent in support with only 17 percent opposed. A more recent poll, though, in Colombia’s largest newspaper El Tiempo, reveals a lead by “No” voters of 32.7 to 30.4 percent. Further, President Santos himself has become extremely unpopular with an approval rating of only 25 percent.
What is the argument of the opposition? The opposition, led by former president and current Senator Uribe, has argued against the peace deal for multiple reasons. Some of these reasons include the lack of justice for former FARC members, fear that former FARC members could gain meaningful influence in the political process, and that past peace deals that seemed optimistic have been no panacea for those countries – the most striking example being El Salvador.
Are there merits to these objections? Let’s consider them. First, by drawing on El Salvador as an example.
The military in El Salvador launched a coup against the government in 1979, one in which the United States government is not without guilt, and one that launched a wave of violence from the military towards various groups. The military in El Salvador used a tactic that the U.S. military used in Vietnam called “draining the swamp.” Essentially, resistors can only function with support from the general population and so the military quite purposefully made war on ordinary people. Left-wing militias rose up in opposition.
Finally, in 1992, a peace agreement was reached that ended the El Salvador Civil War. It would become clear over time that the peace agreement in El Salvador was negotiated hastily and in an effort to create “peace” and neglected to consider the long-term health of the country.
In a tragic, ironic twist, at the time of the agreement in 1992, Medellin, Colombia was considered the murder capital of the world. Today San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, is. What went wrong?
A report by The Brookings Institution draws some answers into sharp focus. El Salvador was clearly divided in class and ideology at the time of the peace accord. Neither side was willing to concede ideology to the other, but in a desire to get an agreement they implicitly agreed to carry out their differences post-agreement. But, as it was so often the case in Colombia for decades, even centuries, the political center could not accommodate any sort of compromise.
Additionally, no real means of integration existed for the young men previously belonging to the left-wing paramilitary groups and in order to make a living, they formed violent gangs.
Finally, in 2010, the former organization that was an umbrella for left-wing guerrilla groups, the FMLN, won the presidential election in El Salvador.
It would be a mistake for Colombia to ignore the experience of El Salvador in crafting its future. But, is there a realistic chance that the fate of El Salvador will be repeated in Colombia?
I don’t think so.
For one, the guerilla movement in El Salvador was much stronger than the movement in Colombia. Even at their respective peaks, the FMLN had a membership six times that of the FARC in Colombia relative to the populations of the countries. More importantly, when the peace agreement was signed in 1992 the guerilla groups in El Salvador had not been weakened and driven to the bargaining table recognizing that in time they would lose the conflict. Further, by the time the peace agreement was negotiated the rebels had at one point controlled large sections of San Salvador and did not remain a purely rebel group. It was these victories and push into San Salvador that led the United States to push the government for a negotiated peace, understanding that El Salvador would never militarily defeat the FMLN. In Colombia, the FARC was willing to negotiate with the Government because they realized that they could never win a military victory. Much of the credit for this should go to Mr. Uribe.
The most important lesson, though, that Colombians should pay heed to is the rise of violent gangs in El Salvador following the dissolution of the violent factions of the FMLN. It is not impossible that members of the FARC will do the same, form gangs, or even join still existing groups such as the ELN, but the argument that a replay in Colombia will occur is unlikely. Further, it is a terrible argument to make in opposition to the deal. By that logic, Escobar would have never been hunted because it only made the Cali Cartel more powerful. Once the FARC situation is resolved, the ELN can be dealt with.
The strongest argument that “No” proponents have on their side is that the agreement denies the victims of FARC justice for the crimes that the group has committed. This is a legitimate argument to make and one who makes is in no way necessarily an advocate for war. It deserves to be taken seriously.
It is puzzling, though, that many of those making this argument in regards to the FARC were comfortable having a similar arrangement with the AUC, including Mr. Uribe.
While some may argue in the realm of nuance as to why one agreement should be viewed differently from another, their arguments are unpersuasive and seem to have more to do with politics than a search for justice. As the successor to Uribe, Santos was expected to maintain the policies that Uribe laid down, particularly to achieve a military and not a negotiated victory against FARC. The differences between the politicians opened deep divisions in Colombian society.
In many ways, the arguments regarding justice and peace seem so strange under the microscope of logic, because the arguments are often partisan at their core.
Colombia today is not divided among those who want peace and those who want war or between those who want justice and those who want forgiveness. It is divided between those who are inclined to support Uribe and those inclined to support Santos.
The “Yes” argument
Part of the argument of the “Yes” camp has tremendous merit and mirrors what I previously argued. While the agreement will not ensure appropriate justice, it does do more than many past agreements have, including the agreement that Uribe negotiated with the AUC. If past offenders confess to an impartial tribunal, they will be given more lenient sentences of community service that could last substantial lengths of time. While the agreement is unlikely to result in jail time except in cases where the perpetrator refuses to allocute, it does serve a dual purpose of seeing that some justice is done while at the same time it is possible that the community service provision could be structured in such a way that it could actually help former rebels integrate back into society. At the same time, reparations to those victimized are possible.
At the same time, many of the arguments put forward by those supporting the deal are without merit as well.
For one, there is an argument being made that economic benefits will result from the peace deal. I find this line of thinking tenuous and inaccurate in the short term. Professor Richard H.K. Vietor makes this argument in the Harvard Business Review and quotes Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas as saying, “Colombia can be a country easily growing at between 6 and 7 percent per year after a peace agreement has been sealed.” The reasons cited are that the war could bring an end to the mysteriously stagnant total factor productivity growth Colombia has experienced as well as set off a boom in investment.
My problem with arguing for a “Yes” vote on this basis is that it is unlikely to be true. Without understanding the reasons for weak productivity growth, solutions are hard to come by. And the boom in investment in Colombia from greater stability and security has been happening for years already as the outcome of the war has not been in doubt for some time. Foreign Direct Investment into Colombia has risen from around $200 million per year in the middle 1990s to $4.5 billion today according to the Banco de la Republica de Colombia. That’s annual growth (in U.S. dollars) of 17 percent per year. Between 2002 and 2015, real GDP growth averaged 4.4 percent per year.
Even benefits not directly captured within GDP statistics have been accruing to the country as the violent struggles with drug cartels and left-wing guerillas recede. Medellin, once home to Pablo Escobar, and unbearable violence, is today regarded as one of the best-planned cities in the world, and students of urban planning travel from across the world to learn firsthand from the city.
It is possible that Colombia could again achieve growth of more than 6 percent – after all, in the years since 2002, it has done so three times. But doing so again is more contingent on commodity prices and the health of trading partners such as Brazil and the United States. To insinuate to voters that they can expect that growth soon, just from the signing of the peace deal is to set people up for disappointment.
Another reason sometimes mentioned in support of the deal is an expected decline in coca production. Once again, in the long term, it is a possibility but is unlikely to be felt immediately. Production in Colombia is down from a peak of 400,000 acres to 170,000 acres. It is said that the FARC controls about 70 percent of Colombian cocaine production. To understand what will happen if the FARC honors its agreements, consider what would happen to oil if OPEC ceased to exist. Production would not likely decline. Cartels and monopolists make money by restricting supply.
Despite these reasons – a short-term economic boom or a sharp decline in coca production – not being worthwhile arguments, Colombians should nonetheless embrace the peace process.
Saying “Yes” to a shared future
Abraham Lincoln has, and always will have, a special place in the heart of Americans. Much of that appeal is because he was the country’s only poet-president who wrote his speeches and challenged people to think of the deeper meanings to tragedy and disappointment as well as expand the boundaries of political argument.
His Second Inaugural Address is one of his most famous. It is a speech I can imagine no Politician giving today and that challenged to the very foundation what his fellow citizens felt they had learned from a Civil War that was now drawing to a close. Many then, and many today, think the lessons of that War are cut and dry: slavery is evil. And so it is. But, Lincoln saw broader and more personal lessons.
He wanted to speak to people on the meaning of suffering and how the country could learn from its experience the same way a man could learn from a painful loss or a battle with depression: “Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any man should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.”
The address is not simply beautiful poetic imagery, but it challenges the listener to accept complicity in the establishment and perpetuation of slavery. It was true that not all Americans held slaves, but it would have been hypocritical for Northerners to have benefited from and tolerated the institution of slavery for so long and then accept no responsibility for its consequences. If slavery were evil and all participated, then God’s Judgments on the whole country were justified and the wages that sin paid just.
But, where did that leave the country? It becomes senseless to talk about revenge or punishment in the context of such a realization. All benefited from evil, all suffered as a result of that evil, now the only sensible thing to do is to care for the people who suffered the most and work towards a future where, because of the lessons learned, no one’s children will have to participate in such massive suffering again.
It is a mistake to think that all in Colombia should feel as though they share guilt in the crimes of the FARC. But, it is also true that those crimes originate within a complicated background of injustice, violence, and corruption. Since that time, both right and left-wing groups have carried out unspeakable massacres and acts against common decency and humanity. Even the Colombian military has, at times, participated in condemnable acts. These groups should not be placed upon the same moral plane, because they are not equivalent. But, it is time that Colombia as a Nation thinks mostly about “him who has borne the battle” The raped mother, the child who stepped on a landmine, the sexually abused girl, and the young boy forced into a life of violence. Nothing can erase their pain. But since so many parties have contributed to the grief, it is time to not only bind up the wounds of the victimized but make sure together that the wounds of the next generation never appear.
Several years before the outcome of the United States’ Civil War was obvious, Lincoln reminded the Congress of the United States that it was not only the world watching them, but future generations not yet born would judge them on the basis of the choices they made in the most difficult of times, when the life of that future generations was being formed: “Fellow-citizens we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation,” Abraham Lincoln told Congress in 1862.
The most difficult moments in the course of a life or in the history of an entire country are the ones that reveal the most about underlying character. And the trials we endure will either pave a path for our children or consume us whole. Perhaps the poet Walt Whitman provides the greatest image of what future generations may see when looking back: “These heated, torn, distracted ages are to be compacted and made whole.”
Should that not happen the future for Colombia seems extremely murky. The FARC fighters will certainly return to their previous way of life (despite any argument that they will not) and a future deal with the ELN would become impossible. What is more, President Santos will have no government left with the political capital necessary to achieve any legislative victories, leaving Colombia to wait until the next election in 2018 for the progress of any kind – even on issues unrelated to the peace process. On the other hand, an affirmative outcome will not only start the process of healing the country but allow the government to turn towards other chronic problems such as lingering inequality.
Let us hope that the people of Colombia choose to ‘strive to finish the work they are in’ and light the path towards the future with honor.