After Colombian Peace Agreement, A Country Still Divided

Colombians from the “NO” campaign protest against President Juan Manuel Santos’s government and peace talks with the FARC in Bogotá in April 2016 (Photo by Fernando Vergara, AP).

The history of the armed conflict in Colombia is a long, bitter, and bloody one. After 53 years of guerilla warfare between the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian military and paramilitary forces, 220,000 people have been killed and over 5 million displaced from their homes.[1] Historically, there have been many actors at play in the conflict; consequently, there were many different interests involved in the peace process. Since the penultimate rejection and ultimate acceptance of the partnered peace agreement between the Colombian government and FARC, the state of peace in Colombia remains tumultuous. Victims of the conflict, ex-FARC soldiers, government officials, businesspeople, activists, and human rights groups all have different approaches and expectations for the implementation of the peace plan. In this paper, I will expound the state of peace plan implementation in Colombia with attention to effects and repercussions for different actors in the state and from the international community.

In 2012, the Colombian government entered negotiations for a peace agreement with the FARC. These negotiations centered on land reform, reintegration of the FARC into national politics, a ceasefire, a solution to illegal drug-trafficking, and a victim-oriented post-war justice framework. In 2011, the Colombian government established the Victim’s Law, a piece of legislation aimed toward giving victims of the conflict more negotiating power and moving conflict resolution in the direction of restorative justice.[2] Restorative justice placed focus on restitution and reparations of the emotional and physical damages suffered by victims.

With the restorative justice focus, the peace process that began in 2012 in Havana, Cuba stretched until August 24, 2016, when the Colombian government and representatives from FARC reached the Final Agreement for Ending the Conflict and Building a Stable and Lasting Peace. In October 2016, the Colombian Congress ratified the agreement and put it to a referendum. The question posed to the Colombian people was: Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and to build a stable and lasting peace?[3]

Of the eligible voting body, only 13 million people, or 37 percent, voted on the referendum. Of that 37 percent, 49.78% voted YES and 50.21% voted NO. While the Colombian government, especially liberal President Juan Manuel Santos, balked in shock, the vote breakdown showed the country was not as unified on a peace plan as the government had once assumed.[4] Supporters of the referendum mostly centered in conflict zones. Victims of large, violent attacks by the FARC were much more likely to vote YES. Most saw the consolidation of peace as a stepping-stone to land reform and reparations for victims. Moreover, those more largely affected by violence were much more eager to end the conflict quickly, notwithstanding its concessions to the culprits of violence.[5]

Opponents of the referendum, led prominently by ex-president Álvaro Uribe, were largely concentrated in urban areas. These voters were much more concerned with the logistics of peace implementation and the treaty’s impact on employment, transportation, and inflation.[6] Others claimed the agreement would exonerate “narco-terrorists” of the FARC while setting the stage for authoritarian socialism of the likes of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.[7] Since the peace deal grants the FARC recognition as a political party and 10 seats in Congress, many opponents feared the same dismal political precedent set by Venezuela in granting its radical leftist groups political power. Venezuela currently faces economic crisis and extremely high rates of poverty and violence. The late socialist President Hugo Chávez was a large supporter of the FARC.[8]

On November 22, 2016 a new peace agreement was presented. On November 30, 2016, the majority of the Colombian Congress ratified the peace agreement.[9]

Colombians in Bogotá, the capital, demonstrate for peace by holding up the letters in Spanish. The peace plan to end the nearly 60-year internal conflict was met with much contention from the eligible voting body of Colombia (Photo by Jennifer Alarcon, AP).

With implementation of the peace agreement underway, the international community has begun to weigh in. A senior United Nations representative said that FARC and the Colombian government must have “constant vigilance” in order to keep the peace plan on track. While the United Nations Mission in Colombia has almost completed its collection and destruction of weapons held by the FARC, the country faces challenges from the hole that FARC’s power has left. Several non-State groups have taken over land previously occupied by FARC and are now engaged in illegal mining and drug trafficking. Former FARC members have also faced economic deterioration since the start of the peace agreement, leading members of the Russian Federation to believe that members would once again resort to violence.[10]

In December 2016, the European Union established a trust fund to benefit the peace process in Colombia. Pooling resources from 19 EU member states, the trust fund will have close to €65 million at its disposal. Primarily it will service rural areas that were disproportionately affected by the conflict.[11]

The United States has had a vested interest in Colombia’s stability and economic success since the late 1990s when U.S. foreign policy experts feared Colombia would become a failed state. From 2000, when Plan Colombia was implemented, to 2015, the U.S. invested $10 billion in improving security and stability in Colombia. Instead of moving on to its next security threat, the U.S. must continue its monetary support to Colombia throughout the peace process, which is estimated to cost around $44 billion over the next 10 years. The U.S. must handle Colombia’s drug trafficking and security challenges carefully, using its aid to bolster rural and community development while allowing Colombia to broaden its security partnerships.[12]

Colombia also faces many challenges with respect to its institutional capacity. Its long history of government corruption and extortion has hindered many businesses operating or planning to invest in Colombia.[13] The U.S. can offer counsel on how to improve law institutions whose current corruption has fostered insecurity and bureaucratic backlog. This insecurity disproportionately affects outspoken populations like community leaders and activists who push for peace on the grassroots level and are instrumental to the process.[14]

Those lauding the peace plan concentrate in both liberal positions of power and rural violence-affected areas. María Emma Mejía, Colombia Delegate to the UN, praised the large decrease in violence the country has seen over the past seven months, including 1,546 days without attacks on communities, 580 days without abductions, and 307 days without incidents credited to FARC. She cites a 12 percent decrease in homicides in the first quarter, official plans to establish a truth commission, and 20 percent participation of women in the peace plan implementation as victories.[15] Largely affected by inequality and land displacement, people living in poor, rural areas support the component of the treaty that, over the next few years, will redistribute three million hectares of land through credit and farmland.[16]

On the other hand, urban dwellers and wealthy landowners have been less receptive to the peace plan. In Colombia, 0.4 percent of farm holders control two thirds of agricultural land. Congruently, 84 percent of small-scale farms control less than four percent of productive land.[17] In the wake of the peace treaty, wealthy landowners were unhappy with the land redistribution plans, a measure that would undoubtedly decrease wealthy landowner monopolies and power. In fact, the Stanford Political Journal writes that some Colombian business owners may be averse to hiring ex-guerilla combatants, possibly hindering their reintegration into society. This brings to light a concern many Colombians have; how exactly does a country accept and foster ex-combatants that have committed grave crimes against humanity? However, the opposition made clear that while they opposed the measures of the peace plan proposed in August 2016, their end goal was still peace.

Nevertheless, the country faces struggle on the road to peace. Even as the peace accord has reduced violent crime across the country, the disbanding of FARC has left a vacuum for violent paramilitary groups to fill. Colombian organizations report that, since September 2016, human rights defenders, activists, and community leaders have suffered casualties and increased threats to their safety. Between January and December 2016, in Cauca department alone, 117 social leaders and human rights defenders were killed.[18] After the original agreement was brought forth in August 2016, 13 community leaders — advocates of the peace process — were killed.[19] Particularly vulnerable among these community groups are populations of Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples, and women.[20] Civil society activists are some of the most important voices in the ongoing struggle for peace; they educate civilians through truth and reconciliation projects, emphasizing positive development.[21] As these civil society activists are engaged in the process of peace implementation, their danger is a threat to the peace process as a whole.

The state of peace in Colombia is far from resolved. If anything, the peace accord has exposed a long, deep class struggle present between the urban elite and the rural poor. Additionally, the peace process has many foreign nations competing for the aid spotlight, which reduces the chance of Colombia’s demands being met on Colombia’s terms. The accord also demonstrates the rifts between leftist proponents of land reform in the FARC and the now-threatened community activists advocating for peasant rights and land reform. Though initially a huge blow to the country, the contested referendum uncovered many of Colombia’s unresolved issues pertaining to inequality and democratic representation. The country, in a sense, remains divided, yet this division encourages a more democratic route to peace.

[1] “¡BASTA YA! Colombia: Memorias de guerra y dignidad.” Imprenta Nacional, 2013.

[2] Juliana Bustamante-Reyes, “Colombia’s path to peace: Juliana Bustamante-Reyes looks into the system of justice provided in the recently achieved peace agreement.” New Zealand International Review (2017), 14+. Accessed March 22, 2017, url: go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=nysl_sc_cornl&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA476560349&it=r&asid=306b09c60eb28f047c3526a9f174c938

[3] Joan Miguel Tejedor Estupiñán, “Towards a Post-conflict Economy.” Revista Finanzas y Política Económica 9 (2017): 15–18, accessed March 28, 2017, url: http://dx.doi.org/10.14718/revfinanzpolitecon.2017.9.1.1

[4] Tejedor Estupiñán, “Post-conflict economy,” 15

[5] Daniela Daza González, “Colombia’s Vote Against Peace Was Far From a Failure,” Stanford Political Journal, February 1, 2017, accessed April 1, 2017, https://stanfordpolitics.com/colombias-vote-against-peace-was-far-from-a-failure-381fb8f09400

[6] González, “Colombia’s Vote.”

[7] Nick MacWilliam and Matt Kennard, “Was a peace agreement ever possible in a country as complicated as Colombia?” OpenDemocracy, October 10, 2016, accessed April 1, 2017.

[8] González, “Colombia’s Vote.”

[9] Tejedor Estupiñán, “Post-conflict economy,” 16

[10] “Consistent Vigilance Needed to Build Solid Foundation for Peace in Colombia, Secretary-General’s Special Representative Tells Security Council,” State News Source, April 5, 2017, accessed April 9, 2017, http://go.galegroup.com.proxy.library.cornell.edu/ps/i.do?p=STND&u=nysl_sc_cornl&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA488664804&inPS=true&linkSource=interlink&sid=STND

[11] “EU Trust Fund for Colombia,” European Commission, April 27, 2017, accessed April 28, 2017, https://ec.europa.eu/europeaid/eu-trust-fund-colombia_en

[12] Dan Restrepo, Frank O. Mora, Brian Fonseca, and Jonathan D. Rosen, “The United States and Colombia: From Security Partners to Global Partners in Peace,” Center for American Progress, February 2, 2016, accessed April 25, 2017, url: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/reports/2016/02/02/130251/the-united-states-and-colombia-from-security-partners-to-global-partners-in-peace/

[13] “Colombia Corruption Report” GAN Business Anti-Corruption Portal, August 2016, accessed April 25, 2017, http://www.business-anti-corruption.com/country-profiles/colombia

[14] Restrepo, Mora, et al. “The United States and Colombia”

[15] “Consistent Vigilance,” State News Source.

[16] Anastasia Moloney, “Latin America has most unequal land distribution, Colombia fares worst: charity,” Reuters, November 30, 2016, accessed April 9, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-latam-landrights-idUSKBN13P2NX

[17] Moloney, “Latin America.”

[18] Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli and Sonia Londoño, “The Activists Key to Consolidating Colombia’s Peace Are Facing Increased Attacks,” Washington Office on Latin America, February 15, 2017, accessed April 9, 2017, colombiapeace.org

[19] MacWilliam and Kennard, “Was a peace agreement…as Colombia?”

[20] Sánchez-Garzoli and Londoño, “The Activists Key.”

[21] “¡BASTA YA! Colombia: Memorias de guerra y dignidad.”