Colombia’s Long Road to Peace

NEW YORK – The peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reached this month by the country’s government has received much-deserved praise. It is a historic achievement, one that promises to end more than a half-century of kidnapping, forced displacement, indiscriminate attacks on villages, and violence that has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths.

Colombia is well versed in bringing an end to violent confrontation. After a decade-long mid-twentieth-century clash between the country’s two major political parties – known simply as “la violencia” – a bipartisan settlement, approved in a plebiscite in 1957, ended the conflict.

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In 1990, the Colombian government reached political settlements with several rebel groups. The M-19, for example, became a major force in the 1991 Constitutional Assembly, with some of its leaders becoming active participants in democratic political life.

But some guerilla organizations – including the largest, the FARC, and the much smaller National Liberalization Army (ELN) – proved difficult to bring into line. Negotiations with the ELN are ongoing, but do not seem promising. Negotiations with the FARC failed three times – in the 1980s, in the early 1990s, and at the turn of the century.

This time, peace with the FARC finally seems possible. Nonetheless, the recent agreement must be approved in a plebiscite on October 2, and not everyone in Colombia is ready to accept it. In particular, former President Álvaro Uribe, whose government attempted to defeat the FARC with force, is leading a campaign to reject the deal.

According to Uribe and his Centro Democrático party, the agreement negotiated by President Juan Manuel Santos would essentially hand Colombia over to the rebels. The agreement’s opponents want to force the FARC to surrender fully – an outcome that would be impossible without defeating it militarily. The good news is that most surveys indicate that a majority of Colombians will vote in favor of the agreement.

Assuming the deal is approved, the Santos government will face a slew of other challenges, beginning with the implementation of its political provisions. These include demobilizing the FARC, under United Nations supervision, and creating opportunities for political participation by former members.

The Santos government will also have to put in place the agreed system of transitional justice to investigate, judge, and condemn crimes committed during the conflict, in compliance with the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, of which Colombia is a signatory. In accordance with the statute, crimes against humanity committed by FARC members and other participants in the confrontation will be punished, based on the principles of truth, reparation, and deterrence.

If implemented properly, the agreement’s political provisions should help to foster national reconciliation. But it is at least as important to address local-level social divisions that have emerged as a result of the conflict, particularly in hubs of violence. Here, local and international civil-society organizations, together with regional and municipal governments, have an important role to play, and Colombia’s past experience overcoming similar challenges should prove helpful.

Such efforts must be supported by progress in another area: rural development, which is the only economic issue addressed in the peace deal. This is hardly surprising: after all, the massive inequities that characterize rural Colombia gave rise to the FARC in the first place, and the conflict was concentrated in such areas. (Dismantling the narco-trafficking activities in which the FARC has been involved may also be considered an economic issue, given the need to provide alternative opportunities in rural areas; but it is, first and foremost, a security issue.)

Colombia’s government is already laying the groundwork for successful rural development. In 2014, it convened a commission, Misión para la Transformación del Campo, which I had the opportunity to chair. Last year, we presented a blueprint for action.

Recommendations include measures to narrow rural-urban gaps in access to basic social services within 15 years; efforts to increase opportunities for family agriculture, which accounts for nine-tenths of the rural labor force; better access to land for producers; implementation of integrated rural development programs at the local level; and institutional reforms aimed at upgrading government agencies in charge of rural development. Realizing this strategy would cost 1.2% of Colombia’s Gross National Product (GNP), and could be financed partly by redirecting existing expenditures.

The peace deal with the FARC will, of course, also carry other costs: reparations for victims, the demobilization and integration of guerrillas into civilian life, and the temporary institutions established to manage the agreement’s implementation. Reliable estimates place the total costs, including for rural development, at around to 2% of GNP.

Given the potential economic and, especially, social and political benefits of the agreement, the projected costs are modest. Nonetheless, covering them will not be easy. After all, Colombia is currently experiencing a major economic slowdown and loss of government revenue, driven by low oil prices.

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That is why the government intends to propose a structural tax reform after the plebiscite. The reform, aimed primarily at raising the funds needed to finance the peace process, should also attempt to help resolve another key economic challenge facing Colombia: gross income and wealth inequality, of which rural-urban disparities are just one component.

As Colombia’s experience (and that of many other countries) has shown, economic inequality fuels social and political instability. Addressing it effectively must be central to Colombia’s effort to achieve lasting peace.