Colombia may stay in the “gray zone” between ceasefire and true peace longer than its leaders expected, but the momentum is still going in the right direction despite voters’ recent rejection of a deal to end the country’s 52-year civil war, Ambassador Juan Carlos Pinzón said in Atlanta.
Voters on Oct. 2 shot down on razor-thin margins an accord that would have provided a path to political participation for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, best known by the Spanish acronym FARC. Many citizens believed the deal didn’t go far enough to punish the group for decades of kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking during a grueling conflict that claimed an estimated 220,000 lives and displaced millions.
Despite the uncertain future of the accord, Mr. Pinzon was upbeat. He said all parties are still at the negotiating table. A ceasefire is still in force. And even the opponents of the deal, including former President Alvaro Uribe, while strengthened in their positions, are looking at ways to move it forward with changes, rather than vowing to obstruct any progress, Mr. Pinzon said.
“Apparently we will be in a longer transition to peace,” Mr. Pinzon said, noting that laying down arms is the “easy” part. It’s reaching a political settlement acceptable to both sides that is harder to achieve, he said.
“My opinion is that we are moving toward peace. We will take advantage of this moment with all the the challenges it implies,” Mr. Pinzon said during the inaugural Global Leaders Lecture at Emory Law, put on by the school’s International Humanitarian Law Clinic in partnership with the Carter Center.
The ambassador said the rejection vote could drive broader consensus toward the “lasting peace” the government is seeking with its most formidable resistance group, and it has even shown signs of bringing the second-largest armed group, the ELN, to the negotiating table.
“Maybe what we have here is a big opportunity for Colombia, an opportunity to have a national peace … with more Colombians included,” he said.
But the experience still cautioned leaders to “beware of polls,” some of which had the peace accord winning by a 2-to-1 margin.
Many, including President Juan Manuel Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize five days after the failed vote, seemed to think its passage was a fait accompli, which some analysts have said impacted the Colombian government’s efforts to promote it. Heavy rain in pro-Santos Caribbean regions also was said to have depressed voter turnout.
Mr. Pinzon, however, said the fact that the vote took place at all showed Mr. Santos’ commitment to real and lasting peace. Although not required by law, the president called for the plebiscite to strengthen the democratic underpinnings of the decision, thinking that the Colombian people would back it. His miscalculation won’t preclude an eventual agreement, Mr. Pinzon predicted.
“The question will be how long that will take. Nobody knows,” he said.
But the question of how to overlook past atrocities in favor of future peace looms large after a struggle in which Colombia has had to reaffirm its commitment to human rights even as it fights to regain territory and re-establish rule of law, said Mr. Pinzon.
A former defense minister who said he took out more than 50 of FARC’s leaders during his tenure, the ambassador said that many Colombians have taken issue with the “transitional justice” system set up under the deal.
Under the proposed pact, criminals would avoid jail time or receive reduced sentences if they confess their crimes and commit to never repeat them.
For some Colombians who have lost loved ones, paid ransoms or endured suffering themselves, that’s too tough a pill to swallow.
“Of course, it’s debatable,” said Mr. Pinzon, who declined an interview with Global Atlanta after the speech.
One key point he drove home, though, is that the FARC rebels wouldn’t be the only ones to have access to the “window” of transitional justice. State actors accused of war crimes will also be able to avail themselves of it, a fact that also stirs up anger among some segments of the populace. Many Colombians, especially in areas like Medellin, still accuse the government of illicit killings of political opponents who they say were wrongly labeled as rebels, now known as “false positives.”
Mr. Pinzon acknowledged how that there is no perfect solution, but said demanding that each perpetrator is hunted down and punished through the justice system is also not a realistic solution without devolving into full-scale conflict again. Mr. Santos, the president, even has shifted his rhetoric into discussing peace rather than a “defeat” of the FARC, which has also been softening its public image.
“They didn’t have any future in terms of crime and violence as an option to power. That was not going to happen — didn’t have a chance. The reason in Colombia to go to peace was not a desperate move just to end violence,” Mr. Pinzon said. “It was a vision of a strong democracy that recovers its tools for using politics, using diplomacy and using social policy to solve problems. It was peace from strength, but at the same time a clear objective to end violence and to get some kind of shortcut between going after these organizations and giving Colombians the option to have a better future faster.”
How these issues are worked out will define how peace moves ahead.
Making Space for Peace
Mr. Pinzon stressed that using force, especially on one’s own citizens within a country’s own borders, is rife with humanitarian concerns.
But the “brave Colombian people” called on their government to solve the interlinked problems of violence, drugs and overall criminal impunity that saw Medellin and Cali, two of the countries largest cities and strongholds for drug lords, become the murder capitals of the world.
The result in the late 1990s was Plan Colombia, a strategy devised by Colombian leaders and “sold” in 2000 in the United States, which had a vested interest in fostering stability of a key democracy in South America both for strategic reasons and as part of its War on Drugs.
To hear Mr. Pinzon tell it, the strength of Colombia’s institutions gave the U.S. the confidence it needed to provide $10 billion in funding for weaponry and training for the Colombian military over the last 15 years — all without taking over the mission.
“It was our people fighting for our own future, but what we had was a big, strong friend enabling Colombian institutions,” Mr. Pinzon said.
Heavy assets were just part of the equation. The deal aimed to enhance intelligence gathering, train special forces for surgical operations, restore territorial control and — most relevant for the Emory Law gathering of students interested in societal issues — provide human-rights education for soldiers. By changing soldiers’ mindset from “fighting an enemy” to “protecting the people,” the plan laid the groundwork for the essential step that would occur after the military operations: development.
“The use of force is never enough. It only creates space, but the real change of reality requires a whole set of policies to change a nation,” Mr. Pinzon said, echoing the prevailing sentiment of many U.S. and Colombian leaders at the time.
It’s easy to see the fruits of that effort. Once a hotbed of drug violence, Medellin is thriving, and the city is frequently cited as a story of transformation, a model for modern cities on issues like social inclusion.
Colombia, a nation of nearly 50 million people with ports on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, is one of the fastest-growing regional economies, capitalizing on its status as a free-trade partner with the U.S. and a founding member of the Pacific Alliance trade bloc with Mexico, Chile and Peru.
Colombia relies heavily on the export of oil and coffee and despite falling commodity prices has been able to sustain positive growth, partly thanks to increased foreign investment that poured in as poverty dropped and the country’s reputation improved. Unemployment has been halved in the last five years, and the GINI coefficient (measuring income inequality) has been significanty reduced.
Time will tell whether that growth will provide fertile ground for peace — especially in far-flung communities closer to rebel-held areas, the ambassador said.
“There is no way we can claim success. I’m not saying Colombia has done so well we can move to other parts. We have done, probably, some good steps. We have created the right set of trends. We will have to work very hard to keep moving from where we are.”