How to Pull Colombia Back From the Brink

How to Pull Colombia Back From the Brink

Just over 10 years ago, Nicholas Coghlan, a Canadian diplomat, wrote a powerful book about Colombia with an evocative and accurate title: The Saddest Country. It chronicled the spectacular disasters and endless violence of this beautiful but seemingly cursed land: murder, rape, torture, drugs, economic stagnation, and a half-century of virulent insurgency.

Over the past six decades, over 300,000 Colombians have died in violent conflicts of one kind or another, from civil wars dubbed “La Violencia” in the 1950s and 1960s through the drug wars and ongoing guerrilla warfare of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as FARC, and other armed groups. Millions have been internally displaced and fled the country altogether. Scholars debate why Colombia has sustained such a continuously high level of violence, remarkable even in the international violence of the past century.

Flash-forward to the present: While not in any sense fully realized, the prospects for a Colombian resurgence and a peaceful solution to the insurgency are closer than they have ever been. President Juan Manuel Santos, formerly a well-regarded defense minister under former President Álvaro Uribe, has led a negotiation process that has produced astounding results thus far: Over 54,000 paramilitaries and guerrillas have demobilized, terrorist attacks are down 91 percent, kidnappings are down 91 percent, attacks against oil infrastructure are down 71 percent, and murders have fallen by 45 percent. Colombian efforts at drug interdiction have also borne fruit, with hundreds of tons of cocaine and cocaine base captured annually. Road networks have doubled, as has tourism.

Colombia is on the brink of either a historic agreement that propels the country forward into a far better century than the last; or a failed attempt at negotiating the end of this long and bitter conflict. For the United States, this crossroads affords us an opportunity to help nudge the process to a successful conclusion. What can we do to help?

First, where do the talks stand at the moment? Today, the ongoing negotiations in Havana between FARC guerillas and the Colombian government are at a particularly delicate point. Of the six areas outlined by the sides at the start of the process, four have been successfully settled: a path to political participation for the opposition, reforms to drug policy, rural development, and a nascent truth commission. There is progress on de-mining, the immediate demobilization of minors, and other areas of contention.

But the harder issues lie ahead: Finding a means to hold human rights abusers accountable while at the same time convincing them to disarm will be particularly challenging. And some method or means to compensate victims remains elusive, as do specifics of disarmament, demobilization, and eventually integrating former combatants into society. The final method of national acceptance of an accord — ratification by a vote of some kind presumably — is also murky.

Perhaps most worrisome, the prospects of a deal do not enjoy universal popularity, as many Colombians wonder if the government is giving away too much. Former President Uribe certainly thinks so, and his numbers are rising.

There has been a frustrating swing in the momentum for a peace deal over the past seven months. This cycle began hopefully with a new year in Colombia in which the FARC were observing a cease-fire (since Dec. 20, 2014) and violence levels at the lowest they had been in three decades. Unfortunately, that all ended abruptly in mid-April of this year with a FARC attack on an army column in southern Colombia’s Cauca province — sending violence spiraling: June was the most violent single month on record since the talks began in the fall of 2012.

Then, just as suddenly, the FARC announced a new unilateral cease-fire, initially for a month beginning in late July. The government responded by negotiating an indefinite cease-fire with the FARC and agreeing to consider implementing their own if the FARC continued to observe theirs. This is a significant concession by the government, which has steadfastly refused to countenance a government cease-fire because all previous such attempts had simply resulted in the FARC using the respite to refresh and rearm. As the Washington Office on Latin America, a well-respected think tank, has said of the current situation, “This is a positive development, though perhaps not a breakthrough. We can expect real progress in the next few months, but not miracles. There will likely be further setbacks as the pendulum inevitably swings back.”

So what should Washington do? We should first and foremost recognize that this is a Colombian challenge and will only be overcome by its own efforts. Our power to intervene is highly limited, and frankly a high level of military engagement would ultimately be counterproductive. Recognizing the limits of what we can do is key — but it does not mean we should do nothing.

Second, our efforts must come through an interagency process, not simply through the Department of Defense. A whole of government approach has been helpful over the past several decades, most notably with developmental advice and assistance, counternarcotics cooperation, humanitarian operations, security support, and diplomatic backing — much of which occurred under “Plan Colombia,” which was successfully sponsored by both Democratic and Republican administrations. While serving as commander of the U.S. Southern Command, I saw firsthand the impact of the so-called 3Ds — Development, Diplomacy, and Defense — working coherently together under a series of brilliant U.S. ambassadors in Colombia. We can help by continuing this interagency approach.

Third, we should do all we can to help the Colombian economy. The fourth-largest economy in Latin America, Colombia has a largely commodity export-based structure centered on oil, mining, flowers, and other agricultural products. The United States is Colombia’s largest trading partner, and the 2012 Free Trade Agreement has helped spur growth. A rapidly expanding information technology sector and innovation cells in cities like Medellin have also helped with growth rates. Encouraging such growth through the rapid implementation of the FTA is crucial.

Fourth, we can help on the security assistance side by continuing to harness the efforts of the U.S. Southern Command in Colombia. This includes partnerships on surveillance and intelligence sharing; training in everything from human rights to de-mining; providing appropriate levels of military equipment; assistance in cyber-activities; military support to civil authorities conducting counternarcotics interdiction efforts; and humanitarian cooperation — most recently connected with the voyage of the hospital ship USNS Comfort.

Fifth and finally, we should do what friends do for each other internationally: encourage and support one another in the diplomatic realm, especially by helping Colombia continue to expand its leadership role in the Americas through initiatives in the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Development Bank. High-level visits by the president, vice president, and cabinet officials engaged in development, economics, and security can also show the depth of support.

Colombia is a nation of incredible potential and wealth, with hardworking people who have known too much violence and despair over the past century. With a population approaching 50 million and a GDP of $700 billion, the country is poised to enter the G-20 and be a strong force in the Americas. For the United States, it represents a powerful and positive partner in the region. We should do all we can to help them conclude a peace process and continue the upward trends that are manifesting themselves today.

Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images