Colombia, the peace process and a historic handshake

This transition from conflict to post-conflict represents a different approach to solve the underlying causes that gave raise to Colombia's violence.

Miranda, an Afro-Colombian survivor of torture. Image: USAID, via Flickr CC.

Some handshakes, either famously or infamously, have sealed an inflection point in the narrative course of history. Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Klerk, Pinochet and Kissinger, Raúl Castro and Obama. Last week in Havana, Cuba, it was Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and Farc guerrilla leader Timoleón Jiménez, a.k.a. “Timochenko,” in a handshake that symbolizes that the end of the Colombian armed conflict is near.

The handshake took place after a meeting in which it was revealed that an agreement had been reached on the issue of victim reparation and transitional justice. Though the details are still to be defined, the agreement will be novel in that the victimizers will also contribute in the reparation of the victims. Rather than a completely punitive approach, to the disappointment of some, this is going to be the first time in the history of humankind in which reparations and trials will be interlinked at such a big scale.

Afterwards, the spokespersons also announced that the peace treaty will be signed in no more than six months (subject to a popular referendum), and that Farc’s disarmament will be completed in the two months after that.

This transition from conflict to post-conflict represents, beyond the end of military combat between the government and the Farc guerrilla, a different approach to solve the underlying causes that gave raise to the country’s violence.

For example, Colombia’s indexes of both wealth and land inequality are still some of the worst in the world. The state has privileged a few certain urban centers with infrastructure and basic public services, while some other places in the country are still ridden with crime, disease, and malnutrition.

The proposed solution is a collaboration between the soon-to-be former guerrilleros and the government, accompanied by mediation and enforcement by civil society. The goal is still to tackle the aforementioned issues, along with the new ones caused by the war—forced displacement, land usurpation and drug-related violence—with debate and dialogue.

The proposed peace is still a fragile one, where both parties are going to have to learn to trust each other. Opponents of the peace negotiations have been bombarding the process, calling for more bloodshed, an indefinite war, while being unabashed by the toll of death and harm this conflict has produced.

Opponents of the settlement point to the lax punitive measures proposed as transitional justice. It is true that, as we say in Colombia, we are “going to have to swallow a lot of toads” (i.e. ignore certain incidents and accept peace despite not agreeing with all of its components). But if the direct victims of the conflict can find solace on the announcement, their voices should matter more than those who have not put their lives, and those of their relatives, on the front line.

We cannot forget that the previous attempt at peace with Farc, which wound up with the institution of the political party Unión Patriótica, was followed by the massacre of their members by right-wing extremists. We can’t forget that the radical right-wing has contributed just as much to the violence of the country, to the extent that both extremisms end up resembling their ideological opposite.

Another massacre must be prevented at all costs. One of the most important projects of this transition phase is to ensure Colombians trust each other again. As Thabo Mbeki, ex-president of South Africa and political scientist Mahmood Mamdani argue, there is no point in dividing society into winners and losers.

In post-conflict Colombia, both former-warring parties are going to have to share the land, that is a condition of the negotiated way out. It is a fair demand to allow the former guerrillas to run for office (obviously, after first paying their dues with society), and to allow the democratic constituents to vote (or not) for their agendas, all within institutional frameworks. If not, systematic exclusion from the decision-making process can cause the violent spiral to continue.

The process of the post-conflict is going to be definitely harder to achieve than one of mindless hostilities. Coordination of the entire society is going to be needed, not just for the end of the armed conflict, but more importantly to oversee the institution of the truth, reparation and reconciliation processes. To tackle the true root causes of the conflict, instead of the punishment of the war actors, is the only way to guarantee the no-repetition of violence.

The handshake and the negotiation in Havana show that there is political will from both parts to reach the agreement. A necessary component, but not a sufficient one.

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