The Colombian peace process—and within it, all issues that have to do with the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and its entrance into Colombian political life—is an issue that still divides Colombians and will continue to do so into next year’s election season.
The end of hostilities and the peace agreement of 2016 have brought a welcome end to the killing and violence that have plagued Colombia for half a century. The 6,700 to 7,000 FARC members (out of a Colombian population of 49 million) have completed movement out of the areas where they fought in rural Colombia, and FARC arms have been turned over to the United Nations—though whether they are all or even most of the FARC arms is still a matter of debate.
The execution of the peace process is slow-going, and it has faced roadblocks. The attempt by Juan Manual Santos’ government to “fast track” legislation covering the component parts of the agreement as a package to be voted up or down was rejected by the Colombian Supreme Court in May. President Santos’ response was that the process would have to go forward “brick by brick,” and that is what is now going on.
Forward movement also has been hampered by the huge increase in coca production since 2015. This is due to the government’s agreement to end chemical spraying of coca fields, instead substituting and promoting manual eradication. This has created negative reaction from Washington and generated new efforts in Colombia, this time under the new Vice President, former General Oscar Naranjo. Naranjo, a respected veteran from the Colombian Defense establishment, candidly and publicly has identified the problem as being a policy focused solely on interdiction and eradication without addressing the structural problems causing Colombian farmers to replant coca. Such policy re-tooling is underway. Failure to achieve success in these measures can only have an adverse effect on the gains made under Plan Colombia (and the $10 billion investment of US assistance since 2000). Such failure would embolden organized criminal groups, and huge inflows of illicit earnings would erode citizen security, increase corruption, foment increased illegal immigration and destabilize neighbor states. At risk are the legacy and legitimacy of the peace accord.
The peace process has been complicated as well by the active opposition to the accord by former President Alvaro Uribe. There is fear in some quarters, but not all, that the 2018 presidential election (with a likely run-off in June) may morph into a battle among those for and against the FARC peace accord. Meanwhile, security will likely be the big campaign issue, along with the economy; and the primary challenge for the Santos government and its successor will be in the consolidation of state presence throughout Colombian national territory now that hostilities have ended. The challenges will cover areas dominated by the FARC as well as organized crime and paramilitary areas—plus the smaller but still active communist National Liberation Army (ELN). All, to some degree, are involved in coca cultivation and cocaine production. (Coca production in 2016 was double what it was seven years earlier.) Imbedded here are the rural land distribution issue; livelihood, education and social issues; and the security of the demobilized. Also imbedded are the end of aerial fumigation and encouragement by the FARC and others to grow coca to qualify for the benefit from the government—under the peace process—to stop growing it.
The sheer complexity of implementing the peace accords is complicated as well by corruption and economic growth issues and the fact that to support the accords over the next ten years will require an investment of several billion dollars, an important part of which is to come from international financial institutions and foreign governments.
As the election campaign season begins with some 20 candidates, political analysts are pointing out that traditional or new parties will not dominate and that Colombians will settle on two “personalities” who will be “independent” for a run-off. But this will not be the case in the Colombian congress, where the battles will be among the parties. In addition, there is a view that with time the FARC (which will field local and congressional candidates) and the peace process too will fade as key issues. Rather, security, corruption and the economy will dominate the campaign—plus fear about neighboring Venezuela. Former President Uribe is linking concerns about the FARC and its presence in political life that could lead to Venezuela-like economic, social, and political chaos in Colombia.
Colombia’s new president will follow 16 years of two very strong leaders—Uribe and Santos. The desire to have a very strong hand at the helm is palpable, divisions are real and feelings are intense. It will be a bruising election.
United States Ambassador to the Organization of American States, 2003-2006
Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, 2001-2003
United States Ambassador to Venezuela, 1997-2000
United States Ambassador to Nicaragua, 1993-1996