Colombian President Says 51-Year War May End Next Month

Post-Conflict Hurdles to Peace Will Be Overcome, Santos Says

February 3, 2016
Fred Strasser

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said his government and the country’s biggest guerrilla group likely will be able to sign a final peace accord close to their self-imposed deadline of March 23, ending more than half a century of internal conflict. Speaking today in Washington at an event co-hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace, Santos said his government will return to the ongoing negotiations in Havana with new procedures aimed at expediting the final phase.

Santos is visiting Washington to meet with President Barack Obama on Feb. 4 and commemorate the 15th anniversary of Plan Colombia, a U.S.-led program of some $10 billion in military assistance that was designed to help the government regain control of the country from guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug trafficking organizations. The Washington forum, his only public engagement, also was hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, the Atlantic Council, the Council of the Americas and Inter-American Dialogue.

"We are hoping to sign by the 23rd of March,” said Santos, who took office in 2010. “If it's two days after or one day before or a week after -- doesn't matter. We are using that deadline to try to comply and both are committed to sign by the 23rd of March."

“I am absolutely sure that when the whole package is put to the Colombian people, the majority will say yes.” – President Juan Manuel Santos

He also said he’s confident that the peace process will overcome all post-accord hurdles, particularly a vote to ratify the agreement, which is widely unpopular at this point, according to public opinion polls in Colombia.

“Elements of the accord are unpopular because peace has a cost,” Santos said. “I am absolutely sure that when the whole package is put to the Colombian people, the majority will say yes.” The alternative of continuing the war for another 20 or 30 years will have no appeal, he said.

Asked what he needs from the U.S to implement the accord and move Colombia forward, Santos said the real construction of peace has to take place in the region and the hearts and minds of the people.
The U.S. can be an important partner in reaching social and economic goals that will sustain the peace, he said. U.S. universities can help Colombia become the most educated country in Latin American by 2025, as his administration has planned. He said he will ask Obama how Colombia and the U.S. can team up to address the Sika virus and other mosquito-born illnesses that have become significant problems in the country, and how the two nations can contribute to technology that will make the country's new fiber optic network useful. 

"And we still need to work together to fight organized crime," he said.

U.S. Plans

Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced that the administration soon will send to Congress a successor to Plan Colombia. In a commentary published in The Miami Herald, Kerry said the legislation would be “aimed at further enhancing security gains, cracking down on trade in illegal drugs and providing the means for redress and recovery in areas vacated by the FARC.”

When Plan Colombia was conceived in 1999 by the administrations of Bill Clinton and Andres Pastrana, Colombia was on the verge of becoming a failed state, Santos said. In contrast, today, the country is among the leaders of the region in economic growth and creation of employment, he said.

"We are the leaders in reduction of poverty and strengthening of the middle class," Santos said.

Plan Colombia enabled military victories that led the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) into serious negotiations—an objective that eluded previous governments, Santos said. While the financial backing from the U.S. was helpful, Colombia has funded 90 percent of the war’s costs, he said. Critics have questioned whether the enormous injection of military aid might have actually prolonged the war because it came in the midst of an earlier peace process and tipped the balance toward military sectors that opposed negotiations. Talks ended soon thereafter.

Under the plan, Americans  instructed troops, helped set up special operations units, trained forces in how to conduct air assaults with U.S.-provided Blackhawk helicopters, and most important, advised on a reorganization of intelligence efforts that allowed the military to be “very successful in hitting high-value targets,” Santos said.

“The guerrillas learned the hard way,” Santos said. “They were going to jail or the grave.”

That set the necessary conditions for talks, Santos said. At the same time, Santos, 64, said he had been thinking about peace for a long time before he was elected president in 2010. He previously served as defense minister for three years under President Alvaro Uribe, who went on to become one of Santos’s chief critics as an opponent of peace negotiations.

Once he succeeded Uribe as president, Santos began investigating what it would take to conduct a successful peace process. The armed conflict, which broke out in 1964, has killed more than 220,000 people, displaced more than 6 million and produced an official registry of 7.6 million victims. His team studied how conflicts had ended in Angola, Sri Lanka, South Africa and in Northern Ireland. “What worked in El Salvador and Guatemala and what did not? We learned from those lessons,” he said.

Santos Advisers

He also assembled a group of advisers with deep experience in negotiated ends to major internal conflicts. They ranged from a former Israeli foreign minister involved in the Camp David accords to an aide to British Prime Minister Tony Blair who worked on the Irish Republican Army conflict to a former Salvadoran guerrilla negotiator.

Santos said he has learned that making peace is more difficult than fighting a war. He had been the most popular minister in Colombia, and was elected president because he “presented the public with trophies every week,” as news emerged of successive victories against the FARC, he said.

The peace process remains controversial in Colombia. Uribe, now a senator, leads a loose coalition opposing the proposed deal. He argues that the peace deal would endanger the rule of law by granting near-impunity to insurgent leaders who traffic in drugs and are considered terrorists even by the U.S. The party Uribe created after his presidency is the second-biggest after Santos’s, and the public remains skeptical of the talks. In January, 71 percent of Colombians disagreed with the way Santos is dealing with the guerrillas.

Both sides are afraid of a peace, Santos said in the Washington forum. The FARC, believed to number about 8,000 fighters today, comprises many people who know little else but active warfare. The Colombian people have grown resigned to the violence, too, “like a prisoner terrified to be released after 40 years in prison.”

USIP has supported the peace process in Colombia for more than a decade, helping to lay the groundwork for a negotiated settlement. USIP has promoted research and policy discussions designed to develop fresh thinking about how to resolve the conflict. The Institute offers small grants and technical support that help Colombians build their capacity for mediation, conflict resolution and strategic planning. Among the programs it has developed and supports is a network of 30 women mediators from a dozen regions of Colombia who will serve as catalysts for reconciliation in the aftermath of a peace accord.

Next Steps in Peace Deal

While a final deal seems imminent, there are a several more steps. One involves procedures and guarantees for the FARC’s demobilization, such as where the guerrillas will concentrate to lay down their weapons and who will oversee the process. The FARC wants assurances that its fighters will be protected from paramilitaries once they are no longer armed. The United Nations Security Council, at the request of both parties, voted this month to play a role in securing the disarmament and overseeing the end of combat.

A second issue yet to be resolved is how the Colombian public will be asked to ratify the final agreement, which is aimed in part at bringing the guerrillas out of the jungle and into politics. Santos is seeking a referendum, while the FARC prefers a national constituent assembly.

The two sides also have to work through a couple of dozen items that were set aside until the outlines of a deal became clearer.

Santos said the key to his approach on ending the conflict is dialogue. It applied to his dealings with the deceased president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, who for years had exchanged personal insults with Santos as relations between their countries deteriorated to threats of war. Colombia accused Venezuela of harboring FARC leaders and supporting the rebels across the border. Santos said when as president he finally reached out to Chavez and met him, they agreed not to interfere in each others’ affairs. Chavez said he would help with the peace process and in the end, “he helped a lot,” Santos said.

Dialogue also applied to the FARC, he said.

“When you try to understand the interests and way of thinking of someone completely different, you always find common ground,” Santos said. “This is the longest armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere—the only one that exists today—and through dialogue, we can resolve our differences and keep moving toward peace.”

February 3, 2016