It is almost tautological to say that Colombians desire peace. Who wouldn’t, especially in a country that has suffered decades of internal confrontation?
Desiring peace, however, is not the same as desiring a peace process, or desiring any peace process. Rushing into peace talks lacking a clear strategy, proceeding upon false assumptions and believing that good will alone is enough to secure peace has been the fatal flaw of all recent attempts to end Colombia’s conflict by agreement rather than by force. High enthusiasm followed by bitter disappointment has been the mark, at least in the most prominent cases: the peace talks conducted under President Belisario Betancur in the 1980s, and the infamous process that took place during the term of President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002).
Common sense would indicate that President Santos is not bound to repeat these mistakes, as he walks toward what seems to be his greatest personal goal: to preside over a successful peace process with the FARC and the ELN, Colombia’s remaining left-wing guerilla organizations. Lessons from the past must have been learnt, and, in any case, Santos has proved to have a more strategically oriented behavior than some of his predecessors.
Nonetheless, at times it seems like the Santos administration is again rushing carelessly: proof of this would be the so-called “Legal Framework for Peace,” a constitutional amendment introduced in Congress by the Administration, which is close to being approved. The “Framework,” which aims at removing legal obstacles for the demobilization of guerilla members and commanders, has drawn criticism from many corners. From the Right, former President Uribe and others regard it as an excessive concession since it would grant perpetrators of horrific crimes the possibility of even being elected to public office. From a different perspective, Human Rights Watch has severely criticized the amendment, claiming that its outcome would be full impunity for crimes against humanity and war crimes. The “Framework,” many others claim, is premature: it should be introduced at the final stage of a negotiation, not before it has even started.
In Congress, supporters of the president have argued that this is necessary for reaching peace, since no one would rationally sign an agreement only to be sent to jail for decades. That might be true. Successful peace processes require lots of sacrifices: they demand from society a willingness to focus on the future rather than on the past. Such a high price, however, is only worth being paid when the outcome is actual peace. And there are strong reasons to think that peace would not necessarily be a product of a negotiating process between the government and the guerillas.
Let us suppose the best possible scenario: both the FARC and the ELN sign a peace agreement and move on into full demobilization of their armed structures. The root causes of violence would still be alive in most of Colombia. And such root causes are not, as it could be naively thought, poverty or inequality. The actual reason why Colombia is such a violent country, and has been so for two centuries, is the fact that most of the Colombian territory resembles an open frontier where the authority of the state is nonexistent, or is only existent in nominal terms. All sorts of violent manifestations emerge: vigilante justice, quasi-feudal war lords and all-out violence. Add to this the money of the drug business: more fuel for the fire.
The proper elements of civilized society, where a governmental authority is at least capable of preventing violent death, theft and rape, are absent in large and populated regions of the country. Peace will not come to these regions unless the rule of law comes first. And demobilization of the guerillas, which indeed could produce a short-term reduction in local rates of violence, could easily be followed by private war lords controlling the areas formerly controlled by the guerillas, and very likely exploiting the business of drug trafficking.
And remember we are considering the best-case scenario: the real-life scenario of a peace agreement would probably have other features, like rogue, extremist factions unwilling to join the agreement, and therefore maintaining violent activities. At least in the case of the FARC, a large group with a strict observance of Marxism-leninism, there is a high probability that some commanders would regard an agreement as treason to their ideals.
An agreement with the FARC and the ELN could indeed be a desirable outcome for Colombia. But the belief that such agreement would bring “peace” to the country is naïve and unjustified. This should be kept in mind, when assessing the price to pay.
Andrés Mejía Vergnaud is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is a political consultant based in Bogotá and is the author of El destino trágico de Venezuela.