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War or Peace in Colombia?

MEXICO CITY – The Colombian government’s peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) will be signed on September 26 and decided by the Colombian public in a referendum on October 2.

The accord ends a war that neither side could win, and helps to secure a future for Colombia that would have been impossible with continued conflict. The FARC insurgency was a permanent source of economic uncertainty, and it prevented the government from building badly needed infrastructure – especially for communication technologies – across the country’s vast, difficult terrain. With the FARC obstacle removed, Colombia can now move toward long-term macroeconomic stability, faster growth, and more rapid reductions in poverty and inequality.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was right to push for a deal before the end of his second term in 2018; but his visible eagerness created several disadvantages for his administration – possibly affecting the referendum. For starters, the FARC was able to drag out the negotiations. Doing so enabled it to gain third-party support and restore its leadership, which had suffered major losses in recent years with the deaths of Tirofijo, the nom de guerre of the group’s founder, Manuel Marulanda, and Jorge Briceño Suárez, the iconic military commander known as Mono Jojoy.

Similarly, because Santos had wagered his presidency on reaching an agreement, the FARC insisted on concessions that previously would have seemed unrealistic. Two concessions, in particular, have set the terms of the current debate in the run-up to the referendum.

First, the agreement grants the FARC long-term representation in Congress (though FARC members won’t be able to cast votes until 2018). If the FARC wins only 3% of the national vote in 2018, it will still have five of the 106 seats in the Senate and five of the 166 seats in the House of Representatives. This condition makes sense, because it guarantees the group’s political inclusion, thus giving it an alternative to violence. However, critics of the deal argue that it gives away too much.

Second, the agreement establishes a transitional-justice regime to address past human-rights violations and possible war crimes committed by FARC guerillas and Colombian armed forces. Under this regime, participants in the conflict who have committed crimes will confess them to a national tribunal with international advisers, and will receive an eight-year “restriction of liberty” sentence, which is closer to being on probation than in prison.

This leniency has drawn fire from the agreement’s opponents, but, like the guaranteed congressional seats, it makes sense. Obviously, the guerillas couldn’t be asked to lay down their arms and accept long prison sentences. And certain high-ranking Colombian military officers would have been exposed to such punishment as well.

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While controversial terms in the deal have eroded Santos’s popularity, so, too, has the economy’s performance. Colombia depends heavily on commodity exports such as coffee, coal, and oil, and governments across the region have become targets of public ire since commodity prices began falling from their peak in 2013. Not surprisingly, as Colombia’s economy has declined over the past few years, so have Santos’s poll numbers, which are now in the low teens, alongside other Latin American leaders.

Santos’s political rivals have been exploiting these disadvantages to oppose the peace agreement. Among these adversaries is former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, under whom Santos served as defense minister from 2006 to 2009. Uribe, who left office after eight years in August 2010, is immensely popular in Colombia, and while he cannot run again for president, he can make life miserable for Santos.

So far, Uribe, through his active Twitter feed, has not pulled any punches against Santos and the agreement, and he is quickly becoming the face of the “No” campaign in the October referendum. If Santos allows the vote to be framed as “Uribe vs. Santos” instead of “war vs. peace,” the No camp could win.

Santos should emphasize to the Colombian public that there can be no such thing as a perfect peace agreement after years of war. The agreement is the best deal possible under difficult circumstances, and it is far better than the alternative: chronic conflict and weak economic growth.

There is no guarantee that Colombian voters will approve the agreement – as this year has certainly shown, plebiscites can be risky. But, unless the public’s is given its say, peace might not last. Ultimately, Santos has it right, and Uribe has it wrong. We can only hope that the democratic process confirms the overriding value of peace.

Jorge G. Castañeda, former Foreign Minister of Mexico (2000-2003), is Professor of Politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. 

By Jorge G. Castañeda

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