A Farewell to Arms: Peace in Colombia

Last month, we reported in detail on the long and arduous peace process currently being navigated by Colombia, as the country seeks to end 52 years of civil war between the government and leftist FARC guerrillas. Deadlines had been missed and proposals had been torn up, but this week saw the culmination of the gradual rapprochement that had taken place in recent months: the announcement of a formal bilateral ceasefire and the disarmament of the rebel group, signed off in Havana with smiles and handshakes between President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño.

The deal will now go to a nationwide referendum, potentially within the next 2 months. But with many Colombians clamouring for an end to hostilities, the outcome of the vote ought to be a foregone conclusion.

In the short term, the roadmap for peace is clear. 23 demobilization zones will be set up in FARC strongholds across Colombia, with the incremental surrendering of arms and ammunition taking place under Colombian Army supervision over the next 180 days.

Yet what becomes of the FARC fighters themselves is less obvious. Though their numbers had dwindled to 7000 in recent years – from a peak of almost 20,000 a decade ago – they remain a polemical group. The government is believed to be considering a variety of options to reintegrate the guerrillas into wider Colombian society – including public and private financial subsidies for social welfare projects – while Barack Obama recently pledged $450 million in aid to rebuild the areas of the country hardest-hit by decades of violence.

The risk is, of course, that these significant resources will not reach their intended recipients and now-unoccupied FARC fighters will find employment in the narcotics trade that continues to flourish across the country.

Doubts can also be raised with regard to what happens to the political ideals of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The group holds its founding Marxist-Leninist principals close to its heart and is unlikely to give up the social fight entirely. With elections due in 2018, the FARC – or a reincarnation of its political arm, the Patriotic Union (UP) – is expected to field candidates at local and congressional level.

But the shift from rainforest guerillismo to the political jungle is a challenging one, and many Colombians will remember only too well the last time such a metamorphosis was attempted; during the Uribe ceasefire of 1984-1987, which resulted in the bloody slaughter of UP candidates at the hands of its political enemies. Ex-Farquistas will enter the political arena cautiously, and with good reason.

Lastly, it ought to be remembered that prospects for peace in Colombia do not begin and end with the FARC. The group is but one of a patchwork of revolutionary groups operating in the nation’s hinterlands who must be swept up in a peaceful resolution to the violence. For months, the government has planned to hold talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN), another Communist guerrilla movement and, with 2500 members, the largest after the FARC. But negotiations have been consistently stalled by the group’s reluctance to abandon its habit of kidnapping journalist and ambushing army patrols.

In short, the Havana deal is a significant – even momentous – step to securing a lasting peace in Colombia. However, this budding accord can only hold if targets are met, words are kept and complacency is kept at bay.

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