Friday, August 18, 2017
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Colombia should now signal to all Latin American would-be insurgent groups that that its peace will not set a precedent for them to gain political power by stealth.

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Colombia Between the FARC and the People

LIMA – Colombian governments have been fighting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for the past 52 years, with no victory in sight. In early October, a razor-thin majority of voters rejected Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’s proposed peace deal with the guerrillas.

Compare Colombia’s experience with that of Peru, which defeated its own guerrilla movement, the Shining Path, in less than a dozen years, from 1980 to 1992, with more than 85% popular support. Peru was able to achieve a lasting peace for two reasons.

First, the Peruvian government focused on creating rights for the poor people whom the guerrillas controlled, and it codified those rights in its 1991 agreements with the United States and the United Nations. By contrast, Santos, despite his good intentions, negotiated a peace plan that creates rights for the FARC.

Second, the Peruvian government won strong support from its citizens, because it never ceded its sovereign right as the country’s sole negotiator, nor did it negotiate in territory outside its borders. Santos, on the other hand, surrendered a degree of Colombian sovereignty by allowing negotiations with the FARC to be brokered by the unelected government of a foreign country with its own agenda: Cuba. Then he treated the guerrillas as equals by negotiating substantive matters with them.

These points are crucial, because it is not as though Peru’s government held a strong position against the Shining Path. In 1987, 60% of Peruvian territory was under martial law, and the Rand Corporation and the US Department of Defense predicted that the Shining Path would achieve total victory as early as 1992.

Peru developed a winning strategy when it realized not only that the Shining Path was extremely unpopular – as is the FARC in Colombia – but also that it did not actually control much territory. Rather, the Shining Path had succeeded in creating and operating out of impregnable strongholds in key areas where its members were indistinguishable from the local population, and where the local population was unwilling to report guerrillas to the authorities.

By 1990, Peru had finally figured out that the reason poor farmers and miners were unwilling to identify guerrillas in their communities was because the Shining Path protected their rights. These rights, documented in 182 informal ledgers found mainly in the war-torn areas of Ayacucho, Cusco, Apurímac, Junín, San Martín, and Huánuco, designated to certain community members rulemaking authority over private property, investments, lending, and so forth.

The ledgers formed the basis of a social contract within these communities. But they also had a strategic military value, because they enabled the Peruvian government to distinguish friends from enemies on the ground.

With the ledgers in hand, Peruvian government strategists knew what to do. First, they identified which community leaders oversaw the ledgers. Then, they legalized, standardized, and harmonized the rights constituted in the ledgers with other stakeholders’ rights. And finally, they enacted laws to protect those rights more reliably than guns could, thereby furnishing the poor with an alternative to the Shining Path’s ideology, authority, and military agenda.

When the guerrillas no longer controlled the ledgers, they could no longer claim to be defenders of the community’s rights. More than 100,000 people from these communities immediately joined the Peruvian armed forces, thus quadrupling the military’s size overnight. They rapidly identified and defeated the Shining Path army in Peru’s rural areas, where 95% of the fighting had taken place.

The war was basically over by 1992, when the Shining Path’s leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured in Lima. Some very clever policemen found him on the second floor of a dance studio, and arrested him without firing a shot, because he did not have a single armed guard left to protect him.

The Peruvian example suggests that governments can beat insurgents by severing their control over local communities’ rights and assets, which will always be established in a social contract. But this insight, which enabled Peru’s government to prevail, is relevant not only to Peruvians – or, for that matter, to Colombians. Peru's accomplishment has global significance in the fight against groups that rely on terror to seize and control territory.

Five billion of the world’s 7.3 billion people hold their tangible and intangible assets outside of the formal legal system; these assets cannot be invested or create surplus value, nor can they serve as collateral for loans or as identification for accessing public services. Among these five billion people, the most desperate are highly vulnerable to extremist recruiters.

The bad news is that Peru’s model for legal and economic inclusion cannot simply be expanded to account for billions of people overnight. The good news is that new information technologies can accelerate the process significantly.

For example, we already know how to locate, procure, and compile informal-economy data from local ledgers, so that it can be transported, cataloged, and publicized in a transparent global network through distributed-information technology such as blockchain. This same technology then makes the information accessible to the original communities, so that they can verify that their rights are being respected without having to resort to the protection of terrorists.

Returning to Colombia, the bottom line is that a majority of voters – led by two former presidents, Álvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana – have rejected the 297-page peace plan reached in Havana, Cuba. But they have the means to forge a new deal that empowers poor communities by making them no longer dependent on the FARC.

Colombia should now regain its full sovereignty and signal to all Latin American would-be insurgent groups that its peace will not set a precedent for them to gain political power by stealth. We should never allow extremist groups to be treated as sovereign political bodies beyond the reach of elected governments – in Peru, Colombia, or anywhere else.


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In the transition from war to peace with an undefeated insurgent group, it is unreasonable to expect to be able to treat justice as a strictly legal matter.

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Colombia’s “Brexit”

CARTAGENA – Peacemaking is always a divisive enterprise – so divisive, in fact, that it is often thwarted by politics within the antagonists’ own camps. That is precisely what happened in Colombia recently, when voters narrowly rejected a laboriously negotiated peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Plebiscites and referenda may seem like the purest manifestation of democracy; in fact, they are a favorite tool of leaders who rely on deceit and mendacity. There is a reason why dictators and autocrats so often embrace them.

Unsurprisingly, Colombia’s plebiscite – like the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum in June – was far from a triumph of democracy. With Hurricane Matthew preventing hundreds of thousands of people from voting in areas where polls indicated support for the deal, only 37% of Colombia’s 34 million eligible voters turned out. In that context, the “No” camp’s razor-thin margin of victory – just 0.4% – is even less compelling.

Yet the deal’s opponents, led by former President Álvaro Uribe, expect to force President Juan Manuel Santos to head back to the negotiating table and produce a radically different kind of peace agreement with the FARC. Considering that the deal overseen by Santos emerged from a highly complex four-year-long process, that expectation is totally unreasonable.

No peace plan is perfect, and the Colombian accord was no exception. But, if a deal is negotiated well, the end result brings significantly more benefits than costs. And that would have been the case with the Colombian accord, which addresses a vast array of social and economic issues, including problems affecting indigenous communities, gender equality, gay rights, and the millions of people displaced by more than a half-century of fighting. The deal also included an historic land-reform program.

For Uribe and his opposition allies, the main objection to the deal concerns how it addresses the question of transitional justice. Negotiators decided that the unconditional application of justice would not be possible. The opposition decided that this was tantamount to impunity – and thus unacceptable.

But the government had made the right call. After all, it was a negotiation, not a surrender. In the transition from war to peace with an undefeated insurgent group, it is unreasonable to expect to be able to treat justice as a strictly legal matter; the political context must be taken into account.

Unfazed by reality, the opposition continues to demand that the guerillas be prosecuted for their crimes, while members of the Colombian armed forces who committed war crimes should be offered “judicial relief.” They want the Special Tribunal for Transitional Justice to be dissolved, and the FARC leadership to be banned from participating in politics. They also demand that the interests of big landowners in the agreed rural reform be safeguarded, and argue that implementation of the agreement should be subordinate to the government’s fiscal constraints.

To win support for their unreasonable demands, the No campaign focused unremittingly on the antipathy that Colombians (quite legitimately) feel toward the FARC. Uribe warned, dramatically, that the peace agreement would deliver Colombia to terrorism and “Castro-Chavismo.”

Of course, opposition to supposed impunity is not the only reason Colombians voted against the peace deal. Some took issue with the socially progressive elements of the agreement. One key member of the No campaign, former Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez, insisted that the word “gender” be removed from the text. After the vote, he touted it as a victory for “the Colombia of the believers.”

But opposition to impunity was probably not even the real motivation driving Uribe and other No campaign leaders. After all, some of those who are decrying impunity today, Uribe included, supported impunity for the M-19 left-wing guerrilla group in the 1980s. The difference today is that a presidential election will be held in 2018, and the campaign has already begun.

More than a drive for a different peace, the No campaign was a struggle for power. The Uribistas cannot possibly believe their preposterous claims about the peace deal, or think that there is any chance that the FARC will agree to the terms they have set out. But they do not want Santos to be able to claim credit for bringing peace to Colombia. If nothing else, this would mean that politicians could no longer use the excuse of armed conflict to justify their failure to address the country’s colossal social and economic problems.

The consequences of these political machinations may be far-reaching. If peace becomes a matter of electoral politics, so will pretty much everything else – throwing Colombian democracy into a long period of political instability.

But time to secure a new deal is running out. When Santos made his peace overture, the FARC was still a cohesive organization with a unified leadership. Since the plebiscite, confusion has crept into its ranks, possibly presaging a breakup into uncontrollable rural militias and criminal gangs.

To pull Colombia’s peace prospects out of limbo, the government should engage in intense negotiations with the FARC on points raised by the opposition. The result would, no doubt, fall short of the Uribistas’ demands, but there are plenty of No voters who would be convinced. Indeed, the revised text might be enough to win approval – either in a new plebiscite or, preferably, in Congress. Such an approach could deliver peace, though it would not quell the opposition’s obsessive challenge to Santos’ legacy on the subject.

The peace deal negotiated by Santos would not have been possible without Uribe’s record as president. By vigorously prosecuting the war against the FARC, he changed its course. The question he must now ask himself is whether he wants to go down in history for denying Colombia the peace it deserves.


Peace or Punishment?

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  1. Comment Commented

    is really an interesting point. I actually read the accords and they are horribly confusing and unclear. A lot of points are supposed to be draw afterwards, when the process is set into motion. Regarding the topic of punishments, the Colombian Supreme Court was instrumental at defining the standards regarding reincorporation of insurgents into civil life. it is called Ley de Justicia y Paz. Peace and Justice law. Read more