Peace in Colombia: untangling analysis, opinion and hope

The peace agreement in Colombia may mark the end of the hemisphere’s longest running civil war. Let’s face it: being witness to an historical moment like this is exciting, even if there are difficulties ahead.


  • Christopher Sabatini

    Dr. Christopher Sabatini, is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, and was formerly a lecturer in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University. Chris is also on the advisory boards of Harvard University’s LASPAU, the Advisory Committee for Human Rights Watch's Americas Division, and of the Inter-American Foundation. He is also an HFX Fellow at the Halifax International Security Forum. He is a frequent contributor to policy journals and newspapers and appears in the media and on panels on issues related to Latin America and foreign policy. Chris has testified multiple times before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2015, Chris founded and directed a new research non-profit, Global Americas and edited its news and opinion website. From 2005 to 2014 Chris was senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA) and the founder and editor-in-chief of the hemispheric policy magazine Americas Quarterly (AQ). At the AS/COA, Dr. Sabatini chaired the organization’s rule of law and Cuba working groups. Prior to that, he was director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy, and a diplomacy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, working at the US Agency for International Development’s Center for Democracy and Governance. He provides regular interviews for major media outlets, and has a PhD in Government from the University of Virginia.

It’s tough being a self-appointed public commentator and wag on all things Latin America policy. For one, there’s always the nagging doubt surrounding the whole self-appointed nature of the enterprise; why anyone would care about or read what you have to say?

But leaving that aside, here’s another issue: how do you separate hope from analysis? Straight-up journalists have the advantage of reporting the news. Often, in the interest of objectivity and reality, that involves casting doubt on even the most positive news. And, of course, in the case of Colombia’s complex peace process, there is good reason to be skeptical of the historic signing of the peace deal between the Colombian government and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces—FARC) this week.

In the interest of balance, analysts and commentators are often called upon to comment on or write about the challenges or unlikely chance of success of even the best news—like the potential end of a 52-year conflict that has cost over 200,000 lives.

Because, frankly, it’s not cool, media savvy, academically credible, and maybe even intellectually honest to look like a cockeyed optimist or an advocate for the positive. But doing so often means suppressing hope and sometimes sounding like a pessimistic doomsayer when your emotions want it to be true.

This is the position I—and I suspect many others—find themselves with the news of the Colombian peace accord. Having watched Colombia teetering on the brink of a failed state in the mid- to late 1990s and witnessed with horror a doomed peace effort under former President Andrés Pastrana—all the while tallying up Colombia’s grisly descent through mind-boggling murder and kidnapping rates and numbers of internally displaced people—it’s impossible not to feel the quiver of excitement in seeing government representatives and FARC commanders shake hands and announce a deal that may end 52 years of conflict and upheaval.

Moreover, the result is due in no small part to one of those rare moments of bipartisan and long-term foreign policy in the region, Plan Colombia. At the time, a number of commentators seemed to take great joy in poo-pooing the initiative. But the doomsday scenarios by analysts in the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Council on Hemisphere Affairs (COHA) and even independent opinionators like Mark Schneider, never came to pass.  Sure, not everything turned out well, including the revelation of human rights abuses under the military’s false positives scandal and the incomplete demobilization of the paramilitaries. But, by the same token, Plan Colombia never became the quagmire that a surprising number of serious observers predicted.

That aside, here’s the dilemma: for many of us, the obstacles to fully achieving peace in Colombia are daunting. To list a few: the surprise announcement of the FARC’s 10 non-voting seats in Congress, the deeply problematic issue of the slap-on-the-wrist the agreement provides for violators of human rights (including for those who were engaged in enlisting child soldiers, kidnapping civilians, and targeting non-combatants) from both the FARC and the armed forces, the uncertain outcome of the October 2 plebiscite on the peace deal (especially given recent revelations about the deal, including the FARC’s congressional seating), and the series of economic, institutional, political, and social hurdles of formally integrating the FARC, and those who have been under its control, into the formal economic and political system.

None of these will be easy. In the short term, selling the peace deal—part of which has been kept secret until recently—will be especially difficult given some of the concessions it contains. Until now uribistas and other opponents of the peace deal have largely dominated the narrative. The Santos government, after looking thin-skinned, slightly megalomaniacal and non-transparent over the talks, will now need to turn the corner and recover the popular momentum it once had selling peace to the Colombian people.

For one there’s the issue of the isolated, un-integrated rural sectors long under FARC control. Those rural economies are not ready—infrastructure-wise or competitively—to become part of the Colombia’s national and international economy. Plus, there are land tenure issues based on how to resolve disputes over property seized as the spoils of war.

And there’s also the issue of how fully integrated into the formal society and economy FARC combatants can ever be. There’s the issue of how much the narco-traffickers have stashed away and the risk that they won’t turn in all their arms. Those matters can’t be answered in a peace agreement. But they raise suspicions and not just over how Colombian citizens will cast their vote in the October 2 plebiscite on the peace deal. Assuming the plebiscite passes, Colombian citizens will need to agree to see a significant portion of their taxes and public debt extended to areas that they have considered themselves to be at war against for years.

And then, last but not least, there is the issue of the U.S. and its pending extradition requests for a number of FARC commanders. During the negotiations, the Obama administration made it clear that there were no “red lines,” in other words, the Colombian government didn’t need to look over its shoulder to take into account U.S. demands and trials against FARC commanders. The idea was to clean the slate and calm nerves around the negotiation table in Havana. But now that the deal is done, will the U.S. continue to stand down on its extradition requests for crimes such as narcotics trafficking, money laundering and the kidnapping of U.S. citizens (specifically, those three Drug Enforcement Agents who were shot down in FARC territory but later freed when the FARC was fooled by a fake prisoner swap)?

I suspect several of these extradition requests will re-surface after the deal is done—if it ever comes to pass. The U.S. is not about to let slip through its fingers leaders who have been brazenly sending narcotics into the U.S. or have kidnapped and held captive three U.S. citizens for five and a half years. When the U.S. begins to push the Colombian government for justice and accountability on these issues, it remains to be seen how the indicted FARC commanders and their followers will respond. The Colombian government may very well use it as leverage over the FARC, but it won’t be easy after Santos—and implicitly the U.S.—lured them into an agreement with the implication of a relatively light sentence for their anti-humanitarian misdeeds.

Yes, there are more complications to the peace deal, I have to admit, that make it possibly unlikely to achieve all that the Colombian government and the peace deal has promised. I have admitted so much to friends.

But for once, rather than list and weigh all the problems and pitfalls, I’d like to celebrate quietly—not as an analyst but as a human being. Whether the peace deal succeeds 100 percent, 80 percent or 60 percent, or even if it fails in the October 2 popular referendum, it’s important to acknowledge the importance of this moment—even if it does make me sound like a cockeyed, naive optimist. Who would have thought Colombia could have reached this point 16 years ago when Plan Colombia was first put in place? Heck, who could have imagined 40 years ago that an entire region once synonymous with insurgency, proxy wars and civil war could be on the precipice of hemispheric peace 40 years later?

Pretty cool. Please forgive me if, for now, I don’t sound cynical or skeptical.

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