On April 9, 1948 a series of important events occurred in Bogota, Colombia. On that day, one of the meetings establishing the Organization of American States took place in the city. While diplomats were meeting to establish a regional organization to ensure future peace, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan—a populist running for president, was assassinated. His murder would inaugurate nearly seventy years of violence engulfing Colombia. Fast forward to April 9, 2016, and once again, local and international actors met in Colombia with the intention of both ending and fueling violence in the country.
Following significant progress in ongoing peace negotiations with the FARC-EP, the Colombian government recently announced that it will officially start peace talks with the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army, or ELN); the main topics of a negotiation agenda were also revealed. The ELN is one of the historical groups with a continued presence in the Colombian conflict. Although they are often overlooked in favor of the FARC-EP, their presence and role is salient in several regions of the country. Despite similar historical roots, the ELN has consistently expressed differences in ideology and practice to the FARC-EP. Realizing a full peace across the Colombian territory without the ELN is unlikely.
The peace process with the FARC-EP continues to advance, despite missing the March 2016 deadline for completion that had been forecast by the Colombian government. The complex realities of an ongoing peace negotiation, including important discussions on the demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of FARC-EP cadres and the guarantees of their security after an agreement is signed has led to the peace process taking more time than anticipated.
For some members of the public, this is a reason to oppose the peace process. A stalwart of this opposition is Alvaro Uribe, former president of Colombia, and a current member of parliament, who has voiced his opposition to the process and last week staged protests across the country. Uribe defends the idea of using force to bring peace to the country, a policy of all-out war that he pursued while in power. This policy did not achieve the defeat of the FARC-EP, but did weaken them significantly. The collateral effects of all this, however, were devastating. Civilian deaths at the hands of the armed forces were routine, and millions of Colombians were forced from their homes and displace internally
In addition to critiques advanced by warmongers, it is important to mention that the agreements reached with the FARC-EP have thus far been only drafts, which has created uncertainty with regard to when and how agreements will be made reality. However, several elements point to the value and the importance of the peace process itself, such as the decrease in deaths resulting from clashes between the armed forces and the FARC-EP, and the fact that the de-escalation has provided the space for the state to fight other armed groups, such as the right-wing BACRIM and Self Defense Forces , which operate like warlords and heavily armed mafias).
The possibilities of achieving synergies in the negotiations with both the FARC-EP and ELN are important. The two groups sometimes operate in similar spaces and have similar constituencies. Both are deeply enmeshed in local realities (characterized in many cases by state absence or failure), and are thus well-positioned to inform policies to support a transition to a post-agreement context in Colombia. Yet the inherent challenges are steep. Different actors have different agendas, and any inconsistencies or differences in the agreements reached with each of the armed groups could lead to tensions or, worse, challenges in the implementation of the agreements.
Both peace processes have been strongly supported by the international community of states. While both processes have been led by Colombians, the role of countries like Norway, Venezuela, Uruguay, Ecuador, Cuba, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil as facilitators for both process reflects an old tradition in international affairs to support peace processes and end conflict. In addition, the United Nations, through the Security Council, has expressed their support for a verification phase for a future demobilization process of members of the FARC-EP . The United States has also gotten on board. Washington recently announced their support by committing to a transformation of the Plan Colombia (once a military initiative designed to strengthen the state and its institutions) into Peace Colombia (a peace building initiative). Additionally, the current Secretary of State of the United States, John Kerry, met with the FARC leaders in Havana, despite the fact that the FARC-EP is still listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department.
All of this suggests an overwhelming support for peace on all sides. However, this support will not last forever. Making progress toward achieving a final agreement is vital. Presidents and governments change. Colombian President Manuel Santos was reelected on the promise of achieving peace, and his term ends in 2018. Depending on who wins the American presidency in November, U.S. support might dwindle if not collapse all together. The window for political negotiations is not unending and is linked to countries’ electoral cycles.
However, spoilers have exposed their intentions to block, undermine and attack any possibilities for peace in the country. This has been most horrifyingly evident in the spate of assassinations of civil society leaders and political actors in recent weeks. These violent actions are driven by a range of actors across the country: paramilitary forces, some local elites, and armed groups working for the highest bidder. Indeed, while support for peace is internationally extensive, there are various constituencies in Colombia for whom peace is of no interest. War has been beneficial to some sectors of Colombian society, and these actors will not be pledging allegiance to agreements that threaten their privileges of profiting off of violence. The success of the agreements in Havana depends on the capacity of the state to open and protect a political avenue for all the different actors in Colombia, and to prevent the use of violence. This will need to be achieved as soon as possible in order to leverage international support for the peace and transition processes.
The country finds itself once again at a crossroads. We can only hope Colombia turns in the direction of peace, and leaves behind the legacy of conflict that began in 1948. It might be the case that after sixty-eight years of violence, Colombia could start to count down the number of months to the end of hostilities and start on the hard road to reconciliation.
Fabio Andrés Díaz is a Colombian researcher on peace, conflict and development, at the Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam and a Research Associate of Rhodes University based in South Africa. He is currently researching on the interaction between protests and civil wars and he is also editing a volume on Transitional Justice in Colombia.