Peace in Colombia
Colombia, unfortunately, has long been a country beset by violence. The most notorious era of Colombia’s past, most recently brought into the spotlight by Netflix’s Narcos, was Pablo Escobar’s reign of drug trafficking, kidnapping, ransom, and murder. Rising to power in the 1970’s, Escobar built a network that eventually provided over 80% of the United States’ cocaine import. At his height, he had a net worth of over $30 billion, making him one of the richest men in the world at that time. In 1993, he was cornered in his palace in Medellin and killed in a shootout with the Colombian National Police (sorry for the Narcos spoilers).
While undeniably the most well-known, Escobar’s reign is not the only problematic violent influence that Colombia has had to deal with. Since 1964, a guerrilla movement by the name of Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or the FARC for short, has been active in the country, waging a civil war within its borders. The FARC’s stated goals are to fight for the rights of the poor in the country, largely the farmers and natives, while the government claims that they are a terrorist organization uprooting order and stability in the country. While the roots of the conflict reach back decades and are surely too complicated to pick a “good guy” and a “bad guy”, what is clear is that the conflict between the FARC and the government has cost many civilian lives, driven people from their homes, and ruined the lives of many young men forced into service on either side.
Historically, and perhaps with good reason, the relations between the government and the rebel group have been strained, to say the least. The term of Colombia’s previous president, Alvaro Uribe, was one of targeted, relentless, and seemingly personal attacks and harsh dealings with the rebels. This is perhaps unsurprising, as Uribe’s own father was killed by the FARC in the 1980’s, and Uribe himself had been the target of numerous assassination attempts. Over his eight years, he greatly reduced the influence of the rebel group, undeniably increasing nationwide security and reducing the guerrilla presence across the country. However, critics say that this security was brought about in part by Uribe’s disregard for human rights and due process, when those qualities would get in the way of his personal vendetta against the FARC. Relations between the rebels and the government devolved, and even foreign relations with neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela, as well as with the United States became strained due to Uribe’s corruption and human rights scandals.
Colombia’s current president, Juan Manuel Santos, succeeded Uribe in 2010. At first, his dealings with the rebels were largely a continuation of Uribe’s, riding the momentum of crackdowns and harsh dealings. However, in 2012, Santos announced that a series of exploratory peace talks were taking place between the FARC leaders and the presidency. He claimed that he would learn from the mistakes of previously failed peace negotiations, attempting to mediate a true agreement addressing the longstanding grievances of the FARC while restoring peace and order within the country’s borders.
Moving at a governmental pace, it was over three years before any sort of agreement was reached, and another year later before the official draft was approved by both sides. In June 2015, a unilateral ceasefire was announced by the FARC forces, and in June 2016, a bilateral ceasefire agreement was reached. A formal agreement was reached, addressing the FARC’s agrarian, environmental, and poverty-related concerns, as well as allowing the rebel leaders to avoid prosecution for their crimes by acts of reparation to their victims as well as other community work.
All this is to say: this peace treaty is a pretty big deal. There has been an armed conflict raging within Colombia’s borders for over half a century, contributing to the country’s reputation as a dangerous and unstable place. It’s hard for me to even understand how big of a deal that is; the idea of an armed conflict lasting over 50 years would be unthinkable in the United States, but it’s just been the way things are here in Colombia. To end the war would be a huge step for Colombia to take its place on the global stage.
Yesterday, September 26th, the official signing of the treaty took place. The FARC leader, known as Timochenko, and President Santos marked their official agreement with the treaty with their signatures at a ceremony attended by world leaders including Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Raul Castro, the current leader of Cuba, Nicholas Maduro, the current leader of Venezuela, the presidents of Ecuador and Chile, as well as John Kerry from the United States.
We were lucky enough to stumble upon a gathering in the main square in Bogota that broadcast the signing and featured a number of bands and speakers advocating for peace. Over 20,000 people were gathered to watch, and the energy of the crowd was contagious. At one point, the FARC leader offered a historic apology to all the victims of the conflict, and thousands of people erupted into deafening cheers. The emotion of the crowd was palpable, and the opportunity to participate in such a momentous potential turning point of the country’s history is something I won’t soon forget. I think this is one of the truest benefits of travel; hearing about peace talks going on halfway across the world doesn’t give you an understanding of the import of the decision. It doesn’t show you the tears in people’s eyes at the prospect of peace or hear the hope in their voices as they speak on it. Actually being here has given me more of a connection to the issue and the country than I ever could have had reading about it from back home.
The peace isn’t official yet, however. On October 2nd, this coming Sunday, a referendum will be held, and only if the people vote Yes will the treaty be made into law. Everywhere you turn in Colombia for the past few weeks, you can see arguments for and against the ratification. Billboards and posters argue, or even beg, for people to vote Sí or No; there’s no need for them to explain what issue they’re referring to. This is The Issue at hand, and no matter what happens at Sunday’s vote, the consequences will impact Colombia’s path for decades to come. I can’t say yet which way this vote will end up going, but it is nice, especially in the shadow of the seemingly endless negativity of the presidential election in the US, to see an issue that inspires true hope. I don’t know how the vote will go, but I certainly know which way mine would go.