Hope. After more than a century of conflict, there is hope that Latin America’s longest-running civil war could be nearing peace.
Around 220,000 people have been killed by the bitter struggle, which forced millions to leave their homes. So the historic handshake in Havana, Cuba – between Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) leader Timoleón Jiménez, alias “Timochenko,” – was a major breakthrough.
“When you speak to past victims they want Farc to face justice. When you speak to future victims, they want peace…”
News of the deal, which for the first time laid down a framework for achieving peace, was met with both optimism and cynicism. World leaders queued up to express their support for the process, while some critics in Colombia began pointing out the roadblocks to any potential agreement.
It’s clear that there is still a long way to go. This deal could get caught on any number of hurdles. Yet it marks a turning point in Latin American history. The brutal struggles between the left-wing revolutionaries and right-wing reactionaries ravaged the region in the second half of the 20th century. Farc’s protracted resistance was one the last convulsions of that epic struggle. As was Cuba’s communist model. Now it seems that both are gradually changing their tune – marking an end of an era for Latin America.
Colombia’s deadly struggle
Fifty years ago, when Farc started its war against the Colombian establishment, Colombia was a society laden with gross injustices. A small elite dominated economic and education opportunities while the great mass of the population lived in grinding rural poverty. Regardless of which side of the conflict you might be on, you can see why such terrible, unequal conditions might fuel it.
Today the majority of Colombia’s population are ‘middle class’ and live in cities, with 12 million Colombians, from a population of 48 million, moving out of poverty since 2000. Of course the elites remain but strong economic growth has allowed others to share the pie, with Gini co-efficient measuring a 7% fall in inequality over the last 15 years. Education remains low quality for the poor, but a far higher proportion of the population has access to university now than 50 years ago.
Moreover as Colombia’s economic development spreads, and the expansive infrastructure programme gradually brings the state to the remote hinterlands Farc will become increasingly irrelevant. Because as Colombian guerrilla-turned-politician, Antonio Navarro Wolff, once said, “guerrillas start when the road ends”.
Put simply, social, demographic and economic changes mean that Farc’s offer is becoming less and less attractive.
This lack of genuine support has been eating away at Farc for decades. And the only reason that it’s avoided the fate of guerrilla movements elsewhere in the region is that it became a major player in the drug business. Controlling vast swathes of remote countryside allowed it to buy and grow coca, turn it into cocaine and ship it around the world. The profits were channelled back into the war, allowing Farc to carry on with a ‘popular uprising’ that really wasn’t very popular.
Throw in the fact that the Colombian army was getting better at pinning Farc down – several top ranking leaders were killed or captured in recent years – and you can see why it’s keen for peace.
For Juan Manuel Santos, the situation is a bit more complicated. He rose to prominence as the Defence Minister for hard line President Álvaro Uribe, where his day job was bringing the fight to Farc. The two have since fallen out, and Uribe constantly criticises Santos for pursuing peace. The fact is, politically it’s easier to kill bad guys than make deals with them. Santos ran his re-election campaign on the peace platform. It worked but now he’s actually compromising with Farc it is less popular.
The main sticking point is that most Colombians see Farc leaders as mass murderers and drug dealers and want them brought to justice. The Farc leadership on the other hand are trying to transition into legitimate politicians and win as much legal protection as possible. As a result Santos has been forced into a compromise between the two positions, giving plenty of fodder for his critics. On Wednesday they announced a system of ‘transitional justice’ with a deadline of six months for hammering out the details.
The road to peace
Despite the initial optimism about the announcement this is far from a done deal. Yet regardless of whether an agreement is reached, it’s clear that Farc’s life as a political force is coming to an end. Yes they can carry on running the drugs trade, but they no longer have a serious position in Latin American political debate.
Moreover, as we’ve seen from Guatemala to Chile, people power in Latin America has a new face. Across the region a generation of citizens has grown up with no memory of the brutal dictatorships that took on Latin America’s left-wing revolutionaries. This lack of fear explains why mass protests, organised on social media are increasingly the way that Latin American citizens hold corrupt government officials to account. In Latin America’s Age of Protest, you don’t need to go and hide in the jungle to take on the government.
If you take a step back, and look at it on a regional, historical level, then we could be on the brink of something huge. The FT’s John Paul Rathbone nails it when he hails Cuba’s rapprochement and the Farc peace process as “momentous events, with regional geopolitical implications that could help untie a horrendous Gordian knot of violence, migration, drug-trafficking and instability that has plagued the Americas for over half a century.”
It’s also clearly good for Colombia too, with a possible peace dividend for the economy. Santos has spent all of his political capital on trying to bring about peace. It will be the issue that defines his legacy. He’s not completely altruistic – politicians are 90% ego and clearly he would love to be remembered as the man who brought peace to Colombia. But as he often says: “When you speak to past victims they want Farc to face justice. When you speak to future victims, they want peace.” It’s a good point. Paying a political cost now is surely worth the social benefits it will bring later.
Colombia is a young, growing country with a bright future ahead of it. The war with Farc has no place in that future.