Colombia has a lot going for it. It’s strategically situated where South America begins, bordering both the Caribbean and the Pacific and sort of midway between Mexico and Brazil.* It has a stable democratic government that’s historically avoided the sort of grandstanding left-wing populism that’s derailed other parts of Latin America lately. It’s rich in natural resources, from oil and minerals to coffee and food crops. It is increasingly oriented towards the future, joining the free trade-oriented Pacific Alliance and taking concerted steps to kick-start its economy.
But there’s a little problem that’s been holding it back for a long time now: war. Colombia has been plagued by not 1, but 2 different Communist insurgencies — the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army), plus a medley of anti-Communist paramilitaries. While the war has recently simmered down to a low bubble, it still detracts foreign investment and unnerves locals. Luckily, the Colombian government has taken great pains to wind the war down and might be close to doing so.
Colombia is a diverse land for its size, with 2 different coastlines, the Andes Mountains running down the middle of the country, wild plains to the east, and Amazon rainforest even further east. Even the mountains have different valleys, each with its own character. But this terrain means that the government has long had a hard time holding the country together. In 1830 this meant that Venezuela and Ecuador split off. In general it meant that local landowners got to run most of the show.
As elsewhere in Latin America, unequal land distribution, low levels of human development, rich natural resources demanding lots of labor to cultivate, and flat-out racism (Colombia has both native peoples and blacks) meant that discontent in Colombia’s rural areas built up over its history. It exploded in 1948 when a charismatic liberal politician, Jorge Gaitán, was assassinated, leading to a vicious 10-year civil war called La Violencia (“the Violence”). It was settled when the Liberal and Conservative Parties agreed to share power among themselves, therefore buying stability at the price of democracy (since the parties just rotated each term).
In the climate of the 1960s, this failed to settle the problem. Instead rural Colombians turned to armed insurgent groups to stand up for their rights and foment a Communist revolution, with the example of Cuba’s successful revolution in 1959 as a guide and motivation. Besides the FARC and ELN, there were a constellation of smaller bands. They fought off the Colombian army and ruled isolated rural areas as mini-states. They also thrived off of kidnapping, extortion, rape, pillage, wanton murder, and intimidation. Landmines were sown throughout the countryside. Prisoners were tortured. Oil pipelines were sabotaged. Millions of hectares of rainforest were logged. Young men and boys were conscripted into their guerrilla forces. The FARC and ELN had 25,000 soldiers between them at their high point in the late ‘90s.
Colombia is also one of the world’s main coca-growing and cocaine-processing centers. The rise of armed insurgent movements coincided with a spike in demand for cocaine internationally. As a result, narcotraffickers cropped up to feed the demand. They formed a tacit alliance with the guerrillas, and by the ‘80s, Colombia was a chaotic, violent place, with criminals and insurgents acting with brazen impunity and terrorizing the populace. High-profile government officials and presidential candidates would get shot in public. At one point the Palace of Justice in Bogotá, the capital, was even assaulted, with 120 fatalities (including several Supreme Court justices). To protect themselves, politicians, businessmen and rich landowners would surround themselves with bodyguards and hired guns. These coalesced over time into paramilitaries who fought back against the Communists and drug-runners. As always, civilians were caught in between and were flagrantly killed by both sides.
Luckily, the worst of the drug violence died down in the ‘90s after the 2 most influential cartels were broken up. But the guerrillas remained, steadfast in their determination to overthrow the regime despite the end of the Cold War and the overall discrediting of Communism around the world. By the end of the millennium Colombia was a failing state driving its neighbors to despair and frustration.
The US stepped in. Tired of the constant flow of cocaine out of the country, it organized billions of dollars in aid to stamp out coca production there and to support stronger economic institutions. It also trained the Colombian army to take on the rebels. Under the aggressive presidency of Álvaro Uribe, the army did so, wiping out thousands of fighters in the field. The FARC sought refuge in Venezuela, which was sympathetic to them on ideological grounds. As you might imagine, Uribe didn’t take too kindly to this, but Venezuela’s liberal firebrand Hugo Chávez denounced him as an imperialist stooge.
By the end of Uribe’s rule in 2010, it was clear that the FARC had no chance of taking over the country. Colombia is now ruled by President Juan Manuel Santos, a former journalist with a more moderate outlook than his predecessor. He saw an opportunity to finally bring peace to his country and accordingly opened negotiations with the FARC in 2012. Cuba, once 1 of the FARC’s sponsors, hosted the talks.
Although skeptical of the FARC — they’ve broken peace agreements before — Santos has basically been generous with them. His peace plan is based on demobilization, forgiveness and reconciliation. Although the FARC’s leadership will be punished, their sentences have been reduced to 20 years for the worst criminals and 5-8 years of community service for those who at least confess. The FARC army’s rank and file will pretty much go unpunished. The FARC will also be allowed to reorganize themselves as a normal political party and participate in elections (something that was already tried in the ‘80s with the Unión Patriótica party; it just dissolved into violence again). The rural bastions of the FARC’s support will see development efforts. The government will also continue the process of demobilizing and punishing the paramilitaries, which began under Uribe.
Colombia has suffered hugely from the war. 220,000 people have died, mostly civilians, and 6 million were internally displaced (meaning they had to move to escape violence). 7.5 million people (about 1/6 of the country!) have registered with the Victims Unit, a government agency that helps out civilian victims of the war with reparations, therapy, and rehousing ‐ although that isn’t always possible with guerrilla fighters still on the loose. By and large, people are sick of the endless violence and ready to say adiós to the conflict. Communism doesn’t have the appeal it used to. If anything, Santos’s biggest challenge is fending off allegations that he’s being too soft — Uribe (perhaps annoyed that he didn’t get a 3rd term and can’t control Santos as much as he wants) has fought a Twitter war against Santos and the peace negotiations using the hashtag #AcuerdoDeImpunidad (“Agreement of Impunity”).
Last year, the two sides, Santos and Timochenko (the FARC leader’s alias, after Soviet general Semyon Timoshenko), reached a preliminary agreement in Havana (pictured at the top of the post). The deadline for the final treaty was set for March 23. The foreign media applauded. Santos went to Washington, D.C. in February on a premature victory lap and to beg Congress for more money to help integrate the rebels back into society and rebuild his country. Analysts were hopeful for peace at last.
And yet… the deadline passed with no agreement. In part this stemmed from a tricky issue, “concentration zones” — designated gathering places for the FARC soldiers to be demobilized and protected in turn by the Colombian army. The FARC wanted big areas, including towns and farmers, the better to maintain their rural bases of support. It also feels vulnerable without them. The government wasn’t prepared to grant this; Timochenko lambasted it as a “surrender” and the proposed concentration zones “prisons.” In part, it’s probably a calculation on the FARC’s part that it has more to lose than the government, which is desperate for peace. If the FARC holds out a bit more it can probably win concessions.
Santos has indeed staked his political career on this peace deal, and so of course he reneged on his earlier implication that he would resume fighting if the deadline wasn’t reached. But in the meantime, he’s reaching out to the ELN as well. The ELN is much smaller (1,400 men under arms as compared to the FARC’s 6,000) and has less of a rural base; it thrives mostly on kidnapping and extortion. It has roots in urban areas, Marxist students and priests subscribing to “liberation theology,” but by and large it’s similar to the FARC now. It has continued waging its low-level war against the government since it was shut out of the peace talks, but released 2 hostages in March as a sign of good will.
Can Colombia get its long-sought peace? It’s increasingly unclear. On the one hand, the delay in reaching agreement is a bad sign. The FARC and ELN have been fighting since 1964; at this point, fighting is their job, and they don’t know anything else. They still have rural bases of support. Colombia’s terrain hasn’t gotten any easier, and communication and transport across its territory is still difficult. Coca is still by far the most profitable crop poor Colombian farmers can grow. The underlying economic and social disparities that fueled the war still fester.
But on the other hand, most Colombians are tired of the war and eager for peace and reconciliation. Decades of violence and revenge have exhausted the country and convinced the majority that it’s time to move on. Santos has promised to hold a referendum on the peace deal if it’s concluded, and it’s projected to pass. He also projects a 2% economic boost for Colombia if peace is reached. Foreign investors and tourists, long scared away by the threat of kidnapping, robbery or bombing, are increasingly interested in Colombia: both the national and local governments are putting money into infrastructure and fostering an economy less dependent on commodities and drugs. Removing the threat of attack would do wonders for Colombia’s still-tarnished international image.
And an enduring peace deal would also vindicate Santos’s strategy of letting bygones be bygones and reconciling with hated and feared enemies. He has studied both Colombia’s past failed peace initiatives and conflict resolution in other countries and claims to have learned from their mistakes. Let’s hope for South America’s sake that his dream of peace will come true.
*Technically Colombia is right next to Brazil, but it’s not the part of Brazil where most people live.