The Colombian government is inches away from ending its 50-year-old war with the FARC. It must now plant the seeds for successful peace
Business is blooming in Colombia. As Valentines Day approaches, the country’s horticulturists are busy packing the half billion flowers they’re about to ship to lovers all over the globe. Colombia is the world’s second-biggest exporter of blooms; with the peso at record lows against the dollar, it may well beat its $250 million average annual sales this season.
The outlook is less rosy for the rest of Latin America’s fourth-largest economy. Low oil prices are causing the economy to wilt: GDP is forecast to increase by 2.7 percent this year, compared to 4.6 percent in 2014. Nagging inflation and a plunging currency are forcing the central bank to tighten monetary policy, with interest rates up by 125 basis points since September. The current account deficit is expected to exceed 6 percent in 2016.
But all this pales in importance compared with the milestone Colombia seems about to reach. The country’s government is tantalisingly close to sealing a peace deal with the FARC guerrillas, ending a conflict that started in 1964. Ahead of a self-imposed deadline of 23 March, negotiating teams from both sides met last month in Cuba to iron out the last pending details. They’ve since asked the UN to send a 12-month mission to oversee the planned ceasefire, a request swiftly approved by the organisation.
The stakes are high: Colombia’s civil strife, the longest-running in the western hemisphere, has claimed an estimated 220,000 lives. Ending it would make Colombia, long synonymous with drugs and bloodshed, a cause célèbre. It would also vindicate Plan Colombia, a US-backed $10 billion programme that assists Bogota in battling leftist guerrillas and eradicating coca fields. Months before expected visits by Barack Obama and Pope Francis, peace would earn Colombia much international kudos.
Yet down in the country’s streets the government is not quite feeling the love. While Colombians largely favour peace, many are enraged about the concessions Bogota will make to secure a deal: no jail time for guerrillas that confess, alongside an open door for the FARC to participate in politics, sounds like impunity. The population is also irked at planned tax increases to help finance the reintegration of former combatants at a time when the whole region is suffering from low commodity prices. Only 37 percent of Colombians approve how negotiations are being handled, according to a December poll.
In the mountains people have different worries. Over its 15 years of existence, an ugly downside of Plan Colombia has come in the form of human right abuses committed by US-trained security forces, including extra-judicial killings and opposition clampdowns. Right-wing, vicious paramilitary squads, sometimes acting as government proxies and often employed by the landed elites, have also sowed fear among locals. FARC guerrillas are concerned they will become easy targets if the process fails to disarm these units as well.
Poor communities also want guarantees that the peace plan will improve their lot. Crime, inequality and exclusion have caused at least three million Colombians to be internally displaced, according to USAID. A number of government policies have also helped foster severe inequality, the agency adds, most notably extreme concentration of arable land. Reversing these policies and recovering land for displaced peasants will be a challenge in the post-conflict period. If that fails, violence may persist as generations that have known just war may go back to the drug trade, armed militancy and crime.
Colombians need guarantees that the dividends of peace will be widely shared. The special tribunal created to judge FARC and army commanders accused of war crimes must be seen as independent; pledges to promote rural development and political participation of former combatants must be honoured (they haven’t in the past). Having invested so much in war, the US should also spend money on peace. Whoever comes in power after Obama must act on a promise he made last week to increase annual donations by half to $450 million.
The opinion of Colombians matters: Bogota intends to submit the eventual deal to a plebiscite. With many minds still in doubt over what the end of war entails, it’s too early to declare that the country has turned over a new leaf.