My Turn: A chance for peace in Colombia

  • The cable car system known as “Metrocable” is part of the city of Medellin’s public transportation network. They climb up the steep sides of the valley in which Medellin sits, and link the formerly difficult-to-reach slum areas with the city center. The cable car system and the city’s network of outdoor escalators are two of the reasons why Medellin was voted the world’s “most innovative city” in 2013, in a competition organized by the nonprofit Urban Land Institute. Both projects increased the mobility of Medellin’s poor. Judith Kumin photos

  • A peace poster hangs in the main square of the mountain town of Silvia in Colombia. Silvia is a market town in the Department of Cauca. The indigenous Guambiano people come to Silvia to sell their produce. The text reads “Peace begins with a smile.”

For the Monitor
Thursday, September 14, 2017

If everything you know about Colombia comes from the Netflix series Narcos, it’s time to take another look.

This astonishingly beautiful country of nearly 50 million people is emerging from 52 years of war. In two weeks of travel to Bogota, Cali, Medellín, Cartagena and many places in between, including areas previously off-limits because of the conflict, I found Colombians’ thirst for lasting peace to be unmistakable, especially among women and young people. But peace is not a foregone conclusion.

Last October, Colombians were asked to vote on the peace agreement negotiated by President Juan Manuel Santos with the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. How could anyone vote against peace? As it turned out, the referendum failed by a tiny margin. In part this was because fewer than 40 percent of eligible voters participated. But it was also because many Colombians couldn’t get their heads around the idea of making a deal with the guerrillas, and the government did a poor job of communicating the benefits of the accord.

Colombians explained to me over and over that the 50.2 percent who voted “no” were mostly city dwellers not directly affected by the decades of violence but who opposed any measure of amnesty for FARC fighters. In contrast, people who were victims of the conflict voted resoundingly for the agreement, even if it meant accepting some trade-offs between justice and peace.

The outcome of the referendum came as a shock, but President Santos didn’t give up. He renegotiated the most contentious aspects of the peace agreement, got it ratified by Colombia’s Congress and forged ahead. Before the vote, the Norwegian Nobel Committee had already decided to award Santos the Nobel Peace Prize. He earned it in spades after the vote by persisting in his quest for peace.

The peace agreement itself is hugely ambitious: 323 pages long, with chapters on rural reform, political participation, and above all, justice for victims of the conflict. Like all deals, it is a compromise. The FARC agreed to surrender their assets, which will be used to compensate victims. Combatants who are honest about their past actions will be eligible for reduced sentences. The FARC is to end its narco-trafficking and work with the government to persuade farmers to substitute legal crops for coca cultivation. This will be a tough nut to crack because so many Colombians live from illegal crops. Giving them an economic incentive to grow something else will be costly.

On the plus side, on Sept. 1 the FARC formally transformed from a fighting force into a political party. Hundreds of former fighters attended a weeklong political convention in central Bogota, with a closing concert on the Plaza Bolivar. There was no violence.

On Sept. 4, the government agreed to a ceasefire with the remaining guerrilla group (the ELN), and on Sept. 6, Pope Francis arrived in Colombia to lend his personal support to the peace process. The UN is playing a stabilizing role. Four hundred and fifty unarmed observers have overseen the demobilization of FARC fighters gathered in more than 20 centers around the country, and the collection of their weapons. Starting this month, the U.N. will monitor their political and socio-economic reintegration.

Yet almost everyone I spoke with emphasized that the current situation remains very volatile. Some worried that the demobilized FARC fighters are sitting ducks for attack by paramilitary groups. Others noted that paramilitaries are moving into areas vacated by the FARC, taking over drug trafficking, engaging in (or taxing) illegal mining and exerting control over local people. The UN and NGO representatives all said that attacks on human rights defenders and social activists are on the increase.

It may seem hard to believe, but there is still a powerful lobby against the peace deal, especially among the wealthy elite who feel threatened by the agreement’s pledges of land redistribution and rural development. Former presidents Alvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana have joined forces in a right-wing coalition that could win a large share of the vote in next year’s legislative and presidential elections, and have vowed to tear the peace agreement to shreds if their party wins. The FARC, as a newly formed political party, will participate in elections next year for the first time.

As in the U.S., voting is not compulsory, turnouts have historically been low and many voters say they are fed up with establishment candidates. Young Colombians thought a dark horse candidate could win the presidency in 2018. Many support Sen. Claudia Lopez of the Green Party, and proudly pointed out that she would be Colombia’s first gay president. Others had high hopes for Sergio Fajardo, the former Medellín mayor who won international acclaim for his innovative infrastructure projects, including a network of cable cars and outdoor escalators that link outlying poor neighborhoods to the glittery city center.

Ordinary Colombians are clamoring for improvements in their lives as a result of the peace agreement. Much could go wrong in the six months until the elections. But the world badly needs a good news story and if the peace process succeeds, Colombia could provide it.

(Judith Kumin is a former official of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). In New Hampshire, she works as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) and is an adjunct professor at UNH-Manchester.)