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Post-conflict in Colombia: The international potential of peace

A Colombia in peace should be welcomed by the region because it means the return to the neighbourhood of an important, relevant resident, with first-order hemispheric tasks ahead. Português Español

Javier Ciurlizza
9 March 2016
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Demonstration against violence in Colombia. Flickr. Some rights reserved.

If everything goes according to plan, the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) will be signing in the coming weeks an agreement to put an end to more than 50 years of armed conflict. This is certainly momentous news for Colombia, but also for the international community, which has expressed unanimous support for the process currently under way in Havana. Much has been said about the role of the international community in achieving peace and implementing the future agreement. I would like to propose here an analysis of the other side of the coin: the meaning and impact of this process on the international scene.

The anomaly

To many international analysts and Latin American political actors, the armed conflict in Colombia was, to some extent, an anomaly or an exception[1]. The fall of the Berlin Wall triggered or accelerated peace processes in Central American countries. Since the late 70s and early 80s, political transition processes had begun there from the once-dominant military dictatorships to democratic regimes. The influence of the United States fluctuated between active support to the democratic cause during the Carter administration, the campaign against the "evil empire" under Reagan, then towards appeasement and new democratic emphasis under President George Bush Sr. This swinging back and forth caused deep geopolitical changes in Latin America[2].

The backdrop and ulterior purpose of the centre-stage role of Latin America in the peace processes in Central America (for example, in the Contadora Group) was the resolution of all ideologically-based armed conflicts. The presumption was that once the wars in Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador were appeased, the impact of the success of these processes would naturally open a peace process in Colombia. The Colombian constituent process of the nineties is coincidental with widespread optimism about the beneficial effects of the end of the Cold War. The peace negotiations and the disarming and demobilization of several Colombian guerrilla groups were seen as confirming the Latin American chapter of the "end of history".

But, as we know, the war in Colombia went on and became increasingly toxic due to the increasing overlap of its actors with drug trafficking and other illegal economies. In addition to Colombia, only Peru was going through a bloody internal conflict with the Shining Path and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). To any observer, it was no coincidence that the two countries most affected by coca cultivation and trafficking were suffering the brunt of violence.

This coincidence – while peace was being signed in El Salvador and Guatemala in 1992 and 1996 respectively - implied a different analysis of the roots of conflict. Led by the vision in Washington, the conflicts were interpreted as a direct and almost immediate consequence of drug trafficking and, therefore, their solution had to be found in a head-on struggle with the drug cartels and through aggressive crop eradication and prohibition policies. Latin American countries were mostly absent from these discussions, losing the centre-stage role they had had in Central America[3].

The war ended in Peru during the 90s, more as a result of police and intelligence successes, and the rejection by civilians of the illegal groups, than to the fight against drug trafficking. The enormous corruption that held together the government of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) showed also that those fighting subversion are not always interested in concrete and public interest results. In any case, the armed conflict in Colombia continued and extended through the brutal presence of paramilitary groups.

From justice and peace to Havana

The demobilization process of most of the blocks and paramilitary groups in Colombia was a result of a negotiation the full reach of which is still unknown, unrelated to international intervention. On the contrary, some external agencies viewed the scheme with suspicion, blaming it for being ineffective and promoting impunity, especially after the extradition of the main paramilitary leaders to the United States.

International support materialised, rather, for the management of the consequences of the enforcement of the law, such as the land restitution act, and, under Santos, the launching of a system of assistance to victims of the conflict.

The peace process in Havana was also a product basically drawn, designed and executed by the parties. Facilitators, associates, and other international actors were useful in resolving specific crises, giving confidence to the FARC, providing logistical aid, and expanding consultations. Resolution 2261 (2016) of the United Nations Security Council consolidated a process of increasing participation and oversight by the international community.

Peace in Colombia as a global opportunity

The peace process in Colombia has been welcomed with open arms by the international community, which is burdened with some intractable conflicts, growing tensions and new failed states. Unanimous international support for the talks in Havana is an expression of complacency with this process, a reaction that is almost unique if we compare it to the heavy boxing going on in the discussions on Syria, North Korea, and Iran. Talking Colombia in the international sphere tempers the spirits and pacifies relations[4].

At the same time, the forthcoming Colombian post-conflict is an opportunity not only for Colombia, but for the recent experience in United Nations peacekeeping operations. There has been much questioning, for example, of UN peacekeepers taking military action against armed groups in African countries and of security interventions not being consistently supported by other components. In terms of results, the balance is dismal, as can be seen in Burundi and South Sudan.

The nature of an accompanying civil mission is consistent with the post-conflict requirements in Colombia, and eases the concerns of countries contributing human and financial resources to peacekeeping operations around the world. It remains to be seen, however, how soundly do countries which effectively provide personnel to any such operations located in high-risk areas sleep, but the experience of the civil and unarmed mission of the Peace Support Mission of the Organization of American States (MAPP-OEA) shows that security on the ground does not have much to do with bulletproof vests and armored vans, and more with a deep understanding of the context and with constantly measuring the threats.

And an opportunity for Latin America

If successful, the international mission in Colombia may carry important lessons for similar operations in other parts of the world, but the impact in Latin America should not be underestimated, even though it is of a different kind.

Peace in Colombia would put an end to the anomaly mentioned above - although it would still leave several pending questions - and lead the country into a more "normal" relationship with its neighbours. For years, the Colombian foreign policy has revolved around its own armed conflict. Its friends and foes have had to do with the positions and attitudes of other countries on Colombian domestic violence. As if the country was a sort of South American Israel, Colombian diplomacy has suffered from some degree of defensive cloistering.

But at the same time, relations with other countries and, more generally, the inclusion of Colombia in the regional context, may change substantially, although gradually. After some prominence in the eighties, Colombia has been absent from the hemispheric crises, such as the coups in Honduras and Paraguay or the latent conflicts on yet-to-be-defined borders. Its participation in the Organization of American States has been faint, as has its role in promoting other sub-regional trade agreements or blocks, such as UNASUR (with which it maintains a quiet animosity) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (Colombia being the only middle-economy country absent)[5].

A Colombia at peace would open up significant prospects for a country that has an undeniable geostrategic location, being a natural bridge between the Andean region, Central America, the Caribbean and the Amazon. No other nation in the region has Colombia’s potential for strengthening regional integration on water, energy and communications resources. And no other actor in the neighbourhood has shown such a political and macroeconomic stability, despite its internal weaknesses and frailties. That the war in Colombia has deprived the region of a consistent and relevant actor for a better consolidation of Mercosur, for example, for being more serious about UNASUR, and for an objective discussion of the relationship of the region with the US, has certainly been a tragic anomaly.

The impact of peace in Colombia will be felt particularly in Venezuela. Somehow, while the former moves hesitantly towards greater stability, the latter is rapidly plunging into political and social chaos. All forecasts are pointing to an implosion of tremendous proportions as a result of the erosion of the Bolivarian regime and huge uncertainty about how the Venezuelan transition will turn out to be. President Santos is right in saying that what keeps him awake at night is Venezuela[6].

The border closure crisis in October last year was only a small sample of the instability waves that may be coming. Even if the peace process with the FARC appears to have been isolated from the vicissitudes of Venezuela, there are many other potentially dangerous elements at play. On the one hand, the National Liberation Army (ELN) will hardly enter into negotiations if the scene in its main refuge remains unstable. On the other hand, implementing the agreements with the FARC will be very difficult in key regions such as Arauca and Catatumbo North. Finally, the clash of these two countries has practically destroyed legal trade, which is the source of enormous resources and opportunities for both.

Colombia is expected to play a positive role in a major crisis in Venezuela. Not only for its own short-term interest, but because it is perhaps one of the few countries that can have an impact, given Venezuela’s growing food dependency. So far, Colombian diplomacy has been low-key and, again, too focused on Venezuela’s role in the armed conflict. It is time to push UNASUR and the OAS into taking concrete steps to prevent Colombia’s anomaly from being replaced by an even scarier Venezuelan anomaly.

Overall, the economic slowdown and the crisis of the left populist regimes in Latin America will open new, no less fearsome challenges. If Colombia succeeds in overcoming ideological violence, it must show the region that it is possible to reduce inequality and respect the rule of law, an equation that has been difficult to come by in the region in the last decade.

Conclusion

Peace in Colombia is undoubtedly good news for the international community and for the region. The participation (hopefully proactive and instrumental) of Colombian citizens is crucial to sail in the dangerous waters of the post-conflict. But also, in the medium and long term, a Colombia in peace should be welcomed by the region because it means the return to the neighbourhood of an important, relevant resident, with first-order hemispheric tasks ahead.


[1] Historical Commission of the Conflict and its Victims (CHCV): Contribución al entendimiento del conflicto armado en Colombia, February 15, 2015.  The documents by Alfredo Molano and Sergio de Zubiría are particularly useful for this reflection.

[2] Daniel Pécaut, Las FARC: ¿una guerrilla sin fin o sin fines?, grupo editorial Norma, 2008.

[3] Coletta Youngers and Eileen Rosin (eds), Drugs and Democracy in Latin America, The Impact of U.S. Policy, Boulder, 2005.

[4] Amanda Taub, At last, some really good news: Colombia´s war with FARC could finally end, January 28, 2016, Vox The Latest.

[5] A critical (and official) analysis is unusually to be found in the 2010 Report of the Foreign Policy Mission, published by the Universidad Militar Nueva Granada on April 19, 2010. For an external critical view: Alfredo Molano Rojas, Política exterior, crónica de males crónicos, UN Periódico Number 135, July 2010.

[6] See the Crisis Group reports: Venezuela: un desastre evitable, July 30, 2015, and Fin de la hegemonía: ¿qué sigue para Venezuela?, December 21, 2015. The quote about the nightmares of President Santos comes from a Blu Radio interview, February 3, 2016.

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