Why Colombians must support an imperfect peace agreement
This post was written by GRI analyst Daniel Lemaitre and guest author Ana Caridad.
Colombia faces a crossroads: to accept or reject the government’s proposal to end the conflict with the FARC. Accepting the proposal would have long term returns, significantly strengthening Colombian institutions.
On August 24, after four years of negotiations in Havana, Cuba, the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP) reached a final peace agreement. At 7pm EST lead government negotiator, Humberto De la Calle, and lead FARC negotiator, Ivan Marquez, signed the final document, putting an end to half a century of armed conflict between the Government of Colombia and the guerrilla force. An hour later, President Juan Manuel Santos addressed the nation from the Presidential Palace in Bogota and announced the end of the war. More than a quarter of Colombia’s 47 million people have suffered in some way as a result of the war; the conflict killed an estimated 260,000 people and displaced millions. More than eight million victims are registered on the government’s official register.
On August 25, the day after the agreement, emerging market currencies weakened against the dollar, except the Colombian Peso, which rallied. Although the peace deal won’t boost Colombia’s economy in the short term, the small currency rally symbolizes the long term returns that Colombia will gain from institutionalizing peace.
Yes vs. No
Throughout the negotiations, President Santos promised to submit the final peace accord to a vote, so that it could enjoy the legitimacy of a public mandate. The concept is commendable, but risky: throughout the process polls have shown a polarization in the support of the peace talks. On October 2, voters will be asked, in clear language, whether they approve of the text of the final peace accord between the Colombian government and FARC. 13 percent of Colombia’s registered voters — about 4.5 million people — must vote “Yes” for the plebiscite to pass. If the remaining 87 percent were to abstain from voting and the “Yes” vote wins with a simple majority, the measure would still pass. There is, however, a powerful “No” campaign led by former President Alvaro Uribe gaining traction which must be taken seriously — recent polls show the “No” vote closing the gap. Former President Uribe’s camp has recently softened its rhetoric to appease undecided voters by tying the “No” to a renegotiation in Havana, rather than a suspension of the peace talks.
Swallowing the toad
A quintessential Colombian saying states that some toads need to be swallowed: “tragar un sapo”, which translates roughly into English as “a tough pill to swallow”. The accords are not perfect — the justice agreement is indeed, a tough pill to swallow. After all, they are the result of a negotiation, a give and take, but in their imperfectness they provide an opportunity to turn the page and build a more equitable and inclusive society.
It has become culturally acceptable in Colombia to complain about a lack of progress despite the country’s immense human capital and natural resources. Many say the reason Colombia has not broken through the middle income trap is because Colombian policy makers think selfishly and in the short term, whereas politicians in advanced industrial nations plan their national development with a multi-generational outlook. The peace accords with the FARC provide the long term development strategy which various sectors in Colombian society have been hoping for — reforming agrarian and rural development; strengthening political institutions at the central and local level; demobilizing armed non-state combatants; replacing illicit drugs with legal and profitable cash crops; and providing access to justice in the country’s rural periphery. The accords also open the door to urgently-needed encompassing electoral reform, an issue in which the opposition party and the government converge.
The FARC and other guerrilla groups came to be during a time when segments of society felt excluded and found the political process impenetrable to all but the elites. Building a more inclusive political system would lower the risk that marginalized communities in the future will regard violence as the most effective means to bring about change.
An agreement to redefine Colombian national identity
When the French revolutionary National Assembly agreed on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789, they took a reckless risk which would affect every household in France. The Declaration was much more than a laundry list of rights — it redefined and consolidated the concept of citizenship for a vast state composed of a fragile patchwork of very distinct societies. The Declaration did not magically create the perfect state, and revolutionary violence lasted ten years after the ratification of the text. Yet, to this day, the Declaration remains a staple of the French national identity.
If the plebiscite passes, the peace accord between the Government of Colombia and the FARC will be Colombia’s version of the Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen. The pact will be ingrained as the staple of Colombia’s political and human rights culture. Nine generations from now, this pact will remain the magna carta for the respect of human rights in Colombia and the rejection of politically-induced violence. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen ensured basic rights for all French citizens — royalists and revolutionaries alike. The peace accords will do something similar in Colombia — it will provide political equity to all sectors: the left and the right; rural peasants and city dwellers; and capital and labor.
It is clear that approving the accords will not end violence, poverty, electoral fraud, political corruption, or inequality—but this was never the scope of the peace talks. The accords are not meant to be analyzed as an absolute solution to the country’s deep-seated woes but rather as a formal disavowal of violence in Colombian national identity. It will set the groundwork to strengthen the legitimacy of judicial, financial, economic, and social institutions without resorting to the deafening sound of bullets.
Daniel Lemaitre is a GRI Senior Analyst. He has worked in policy research centered on the political economy of the Andean region in the public, NGO, and private sectors. Daniel holds an MSc in Comparative Political Economy from the London School of Economics, concentrating on Latin American markets.
Ana Caridad currently works for an international NGO focused on promoting democracy and human rights. She holds a dual M.S./M.A. in International Service and Conflict Resolution.