Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon (left) and FARC Commander Timoleon Jimenez shake hands while Cuban President Raul Castro looks on, June 23, 2016. Photo courtesy the Presidencia de la Republica Mexicana on Flickr.
All wars may be hell, but I suspect almost anyone from Syria or Colombia or South Africa or the former Yugoslavia would say that civil wars are the worst. They combine all the misery of any conflict with the special pain of societies, communities and even families divided.
Wars fought between two nations end when the shooting stops. Wars fought within a nation can continue, in different forms, for generations after the blood stops flowing. In a civil war, true peace never comes from military victory alone, although such victory may be a prerequisite.
Has that prerequisite been satisfied in Colombia? In about one month, citizens of that country will be asked to decide as they vote on whether to accept a peace settlement with a leftist rebel army that the government plans to present to the nation today.
The rebels, known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC in its abbreviated form), started as part of the Communist revolutionary movement that swept much of Latin America after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba. At its peak, the FARC controlled large parts of the country and terrorized much of the rest, including the capital of Bogota, while financing itself through rampant kidnapping and, later, the drug trade.
The tide turned after the 2002 presidential election brought Alvaro Uribe to power. He walked out of unproductive peace talks and launched an effective military counteroffensive that eventually reduced the FARC to a ragtag force of no more than 7,000 guerillas, confined mostly to strongholds in the country’s mountainous jungles.
If Uribe did not exactly win the war, he at least set the table for a potential peace. A new administration, under current President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon, restarted peace talks with the FARC in Havana four years ago. Despite the misgivings of many – myself included – the FARC was not able to use the talks as an opportunity to regroup and rearm. Now, finally, it appears the group is simply looking for a way out of the jungle.
The negotiators in Havana announced key provisions of the deal last week, leading to a “definitive” ceasefire on Monday. Perhaps the most controversial of the agreement’s provisions is that most guerrillas will receive amnesty after surrendering their weapons, with those accused of particular, serious crimes receiving “alternative” penalties as long as they are willing to confess. The FARC will transform itself from a group of guerilla fighters into a political party, preserving the voices of its supporters in a new, nonviolent way going forward. In addition, the government and the FARC will pledge to work together to root out the country’s cocaine trade.
The Oct. 2 vote is not a foregone conclusion. Polls thus far have shown no consistent result, and FARC negotiators will also have to convince the group’s various factions to accept the deal. After decades of conflict, it is fair to say that few if any Colombians want to prolong the fighting, and many agree that a flawed deal is better than no deal.
Those who disagree, including Uribe, say the pact is too generous to the rebels. Essentially, they argue that the only way to effectively end the war is to defeat the rebels on the battlefield and then try the survivors, or at least a significant number of them, in the courts. On these grounds, Uribe and his party will actively campaign for Colombians to vote “no” in October. Given the suffering that the conflict has caused in Colombia over more than half a century, that sentiment is understandable.
But is it the best answer for Colombia? Is that country really better off if the FARC remains a private army, rather than a political party as the peace agreement stipulates? Is it worth sending another generation of soldiers off to the jungles to chase another generation of rebels, most of whose parents were no more than children when the conflict started? Can peace be achieved within a country simply by forcibly vanquishing a set of opponents who must subsequently continue to live within that society?
History provides some interesting examples, most notably that of South Africa. The African National Congress fought a much nobler battle than the FARC, over almost as many decades, before the former apartheid regime succumbed. There was at least as much reason for bitterness on the ANC’s behalf as there is for the anti-FARC elements of Colombian society. Yet rather than leave its white minority isolated, embittered and, to a considerable extent, imprisoned, Nelson Mandela and his party formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring a measure of justice to the country without disenfranchising its white community. Both the commission and its justice were imperfect, and South Africa has faced many problems since the fall of apartheid. But the country remains intact and its society is at peace.
We followed a similar model at the end of our own civil war. Despite calls for the prosecution of rebel leaders on grounds of treason, and despite the two-year imprisonment of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Andrew Johnson granted amnesty to the South’s leaders just as radical reconstruction gave freed slaves and other black Americans their first taste of freedom and equality. That taste would prove short-lived against a violent white backlash a decade later, and some would argue that this reaction was caused by the leniency shown to the Confederate leaders. But it was none other than Union war hero Ulysses S. Grant, and his White House successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, who stood by rather than deploy federal troops to protect the rights of black citizens, thus condemning our country to more than a century of civil rights battles.
The lessons I draw from these examples and others is that disarmament and reconciliation is no guarantee of peace and justice. But then again, neither is continued war. Only the former path offers a chance at a peaceful civil society. I was a skeptic, but the initial reports make it seem likely that the settlement being presented today offers Colombians that chance. I hope they take it and, even more so, I hope that promise is fulfilled.