Peace for Colombia: cause to celebrate.

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The signing of the peace accords between the Farc guerrilla forces and the government of Colombia is imminent, and it’s significance cannot be overstated. It is the culmination of 4 years of negotiations and decades of violence, and will end the last and longest-lasting armed conflict in Latin America. The immediate cost of not signing the accords would be huge: according to data from the National Center for Historical Memory cited here, every year of conflict between 1958 and 2012 has resulted in over 4,000 Colombians dead and 87,000 displaced. The long-term effects, however, are harder to predict. Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, told CNN that Colombia could boost it’s annual growth rate by 1.5% with the signing of the peace agreement. Others estimate that Colombians would be 43% percent richer had peace been signed in the 1980s.

The experience with peace accords in other countries in the region, however, offers caution. In Guatemala, for example, the social, political and economic transformations envisioned in the peace accords never materialized. Guatemala today is perhaps the most violent country in the region. Will this be the fate for Colombia? What can be learned from that experience?

Lessons from Guatemala

Perhaps the peace accords signed in Guatemala in 1996 were too ambitious, and too complicated. The accords entailed an vast program for building a new nation, a project that would avoid and correct the harsh realities that had led to the civil war in the first place. It required as its stepping stone a constitutional reform, which was defeated at the polls only 3 years after the signing of the accords, when only 18% of voters turned out to reject reforms to government, including the role of the military, and redefining social rights for the majority indigenous population.

Political participation in Guatemala is very low, institutions are weak, and decision-making is highly concentrated in political and economic elites. After the end of the civil war the military remained strong, which made it difficult to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice, which was a core element of the accords.  Not only was the balance of power not conducive to profound change, but society as a whole was not invested in the process. Civil society in Guatemala is weak and as some have observed, there was never a sense of ownership of the peace process.

Colombia at the crossroads

In many ways Colombia is better positioned than Guatemala to successfully navigate the obstacle course of peace. For one, Colombia has a more promising institutional framework. Since the end of the National Front system in 1978, whereby the two main parties alternated in power, Colombia has made progress towards greater political inclusiveness, including changes to the electoral system in the constitutional reform of 1991 aimed at improving territorial representation.

Political inclusion is still controversial. The peace accords contemplate the incorporation of Farc members into mainstream politics, which is making many Colombians nervous. Inclusion can also be dangerous. As the peace talks gained momentum, politically motivated killings of leaders on the left also began to rise, which speaks to the patchy record of the past administration on demobilizing right-wing paramilitary groups, and the continued resistance to full political incorporation.

Colombians have expressed both hope and skepticism towards the peace accords. Public opinion has been polarized, and pointed criticisms have been leveled. For many it is a tough pill to swallow. But that is perhaps a good thing. The peace accords stand a better chance of succeeding if understood for what they are: the imperfect result of a negotiation among parties with agendas to defend.

Reclaiming the rule of law

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Colombian government is reestablishing a state presence throughout its territory. The Farc were the de facto authority in large parts of the countryside, and their withdrawal will open up opportunities for new forms of lawlessness unless the government succeeds in implementing programs to improve infrastructure, provide economic alternatives to the drug trade, and protect people from violence. The task is enormous, and not without contradictions. How much political capital and financial resources should be dedicated to relocating millions of people to subsistence farms?

The alternatives to not attempting these reforms are worse.  Colombians should not allow this opportunity to go by. They should also learn from their neighbors and embrace the process, with all its imperfections and impossibilities.



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