Can Santos really bring peace to Colombia?

The dream of Colombian people about peace marked the presidential election, but will it come true?

Demobilised FARC members might join criminal groups, writes Ceballos [AFP]
Demobilised FARC members might join criminal groups, writes Ceballos [AFP]

In a close vote, Colombians re-elected Juan Manuel Santos for four more years in office. Undoubtedly, the peace talks he has been leading with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) worked to his advantage in a country with more than 50 years of internal conflict.

With 50.95 percent of the vote, Santos beat rival Oscar Zuluaga, who won 45 percent. The very tight result showed the extent of the political polarisation in Colombia, which shows no signs of abating and can potentially compromise good governance for Santos’ next four years in office.

The 45 percent did not vote against peace – they voted against what Santos represents: the old political elite. They, along with all those who abstained from voting – nearly 60 percent in the last round – believed that Santos’ promise of peace was not enough. The problems that Colombia has suffered from will continue to afflict the country over the next four years of Santos’ term, unless the president starts to address them.

Giving up on justice

Despite the unprecedented progress of the peace talks in Cuba, the process is not going to achieve fair agreements in a country that has suffered for 50 years of violence instigated by drug trafficking terrorist guerrillas. FARC does not want to give its pursuit of power up. Its members have demanded immunity from prosecution and political representation in exchange for disarming.

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After two long years of peace talks in Cuba, negotiations based on the six main points continue. The issues of disarmament and implementation of the final peace agreement have still not been settled and the whole process has been shrouded in secrecy. Many Colombians feel that their voice has not been heard and their opinion on the matter ignored.

Santos said that the signed agreements would be subject to a popular referendum before they officially come into force. There is big concern over how the dense agreements texts will be summarised into a simple referendum that can be fully understood by the population in order to be voted on.

Santos’ re-election does not mean peace will follow after the agreement with FARC rebels, because he is willing to negotiate and give in to rebels’ demands, sacrificing in the process the justice that victims and their families have been demanding.

According to Registro Unico de Victimas (RUV – Victims Unified Records), as of April 2012, more than five million people have been formally registered as victims of the conflict in Colombia. The National Centre of Historical Memory has recorded 220,000 deaths as a result of the conflict, in addition to 1,982 massacres, 23,161 assassinations between 1985 and 2013, and around 5.8 million people in forced displacement. More than 24,000 have been kidnapped since 1980 as well.

Recruitment of minors, forced displacement, assassinations, landmines, kidnapping, terrorist acts, violent attacks, torture – a very long list of atrocities committed over five decades and those responsible for them are likely to go unpunished.

Then there is also the question: What are the FARC rebels going to do after the negotiations? They will return to a society that they don’t belong to where they will not have opportunities to integrate. Their only option will be to follow the fate of other groups which have laid down arms, such as the paramilitary AUC or Movement M-19, whose members went into organised crime. FARC members will form criminal organisations such as Las Aguilas Negras, Los Urabenos, Los Rastrojos, and others. It will be the only way they know to earn a living.

Colombia is already witnessing a rise in new criminal structures. The National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation (NCRR) identified, a total of 34 groups re-armed in 2007. These organisations were formed as a result of three ongoing processes: the demobilisation and regrouping of paramilitary forces; the continuing activity of groups that were not part of the peace process; and the emergence of a new coercive apparatus serving drug trafficking. It is clear where FARC rebels will go when they leave behind their political struggle.

Beyond negotiations

Through these decades of violence the Colombian leftist rebel groups claimed to represent and protect the poor and the rural classes against imperialism and the state. And yet, after all these years of conflict, the most vulnerable and affected sector of society was precisely people in rural areas. They had only two options: escaping to the big cities to avoid forced recruitment, kidnapping or assassination, or staying in their villages and suffering the atrocities of FARC. Sadly, both options condemned them to extreme poverty.

In Depth

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Peace talks cannot solve the inequality problems of Colombian society. Santos comes from one of the most powerful and wealthy families from the capital, Bogota; he represents the old political and aristocratic class that has ruled the country for decades. It is an elite class that has not been capable of setting up a political foundation and structures to solve the fundamental problems of the nation, and does not seem interested in doing so.

Santos’ re-election reaffirms that these inequitable, exclusionary and extractive structures remain in force. Pervasive corruption will continue to plague the political and economic institutions of the country and we will continue to hear about “mermelada”  and the political handouts that this sarcastic term has come to represent in Colombia.

The lack of opportunities for the neediest of the population will remain the same because that is the way to keep power centralised in the same hands which have been pulling its strings for decades.

While these fundamental problems are not solved, peace in Colombia will not exist. As long as the big gap continues, peace talks without serious commitments to social change would mean nothing.

Colombians need full coverage for education and health care, and strong and effective measures against high unemployment and crime rates. Without these, it will be very difficult to establish stability and peace in Colombian society.

Juliana Ceballos is a Colombian journalist. She has a degree from Pontificia Bolivariana University and an MBA from Eafit University, Colombia. 

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