On September 23, guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reached a key agreement with the Colombian government about how to approach transitional justice in a post-conflict scenario. If a picture could speak a thousand words, then the photo op of the historic handshake between President Juan Manuel Santos and alias “Timochenko” said plenty.
1. The men shaking hand were two foes who have targeted each other for death in the past and who have both seen friends and subordinates killed and wounded due to the orders of each other. Santos has had to speak to the families of fallen soldiers and support wounded veterans. Santos gave the military orders that led to numerous FARC leaders’ deaths including Raul Reyes and Alfonso Cano, making that handshake difficult for Timochenko. Don’t blame the two men if they didn’t look completely friendly during that photo op. Be amazed they even sat in the same room with each other.
2. Pope Francis played a key role in reestablishing relations between the US and Cuban governments. Then, with the US able to participate in Colombia’s peace talks in Havana, the Pope once again stepped in and pushed the FARC and Colombian government forward to yesterday’s big announcement. Is there any way that man doesn’t win the Nobel Peace Prize?
3. Raul Castro seemed happy, really happy, to be the man in the middle of yesterday’s event. He practically dragged Santos and Timochenko together for the handshake, clearly enjoying the moment far more than either of the two other men.
4. If he were a better person, yesterday’s handshake would be part of Alvaro Uribe’s moment of triumph. The former president’s military offensive (backed by the US and led in part by Santos as he was Defense Minister) created the conditions that forced the FARC to the negotiation table from a very weakened position. Unfortunately, Uribe wants no part of this peace deal. His opposition to the deal is one of the key obstacles in completing it, so he loses whatever credit that he probably deserves.
5. On the other hand, the Obama administration’s support of the process has been critical to its success. Specifically, Santos’s promise of no extradition to drug traffickers carries real weight when there is a US representative in the room during negotiations, even if the US won’t agree on the record to it. More generally, the fact the Colombian military’s strongest backer is supporting the peace process has given Santos significant political capital in the middle of some tense moments within the government. It’s easy to imagine a different US president being less supportive or even opposed to this deal, so credit goes to the Obama administration for helping make this happen.
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6. I supported the Colombia government’s peace agreement with the AUC and I support the agreement with the FARC. Balancing peace and justice often requires imperfect compromises, even impunity. It means shaking hands with murderers and letting some of them get away with far less punishment than they deserve. That is a hard truth, one that is politically unpalatable to many people, but necessary for reducing violence and improving the country. In spite of all the criticisms, the AUC agreement led to some significant and lasting improvements in the country’s security and I expect the same from this FARC agreement.
7. I still worry about child soldiers, something I wrote about when these negotiations began. While the FARC promised to stop recruiting and using child soldiers, reports from Colombia suggest children between the ages of 12 and 16 continue to be used on the battlefield by the group. Demobilizing these children and reintegrating them in to civilian life is perhaps the biggest unaddressed challenge of these negotiations.
8. Venezuela President Maduro has held his country’s spoiler role in this peace process over the head of Santos for over a year. The reason Santos has been relatively passive regarding the abuses by Venezuelan military along the border and the reason he put up only a minimal fight last week in Quito, is that he could not afford to have Venezuela use its influence to sink these negotiations with the FARC. Once the FARC negotiations and demobilization are complete, Venezuela is going to lose its trump card over the Colombian government and the bilateral situation will be very different.
9. One key concern in the past two years has been whether the whole FARC would follow this peace agreement or if a segment of the criminal element of the FARC would remain on the battlefield for profit. We should have a better understanding of that as this moves closer to implementation, but the most recent reports suggest that this is going to demobilize the vast majority of the FARC membership in Colombia, with only a small portion (partially based in Venezuela) remaining outside the process.
10. Yesterday’s agreement was not two equal groups agreeing to a truce. It was a legitimate government negotiating some politely phrased surrender terms from an insurgent group that no longer poses an existential threat, even if it can still do some economic and physical damage. Don’t believe the FARC or the Uribistas when they say otherwise about this agreement. The FARC went from a true insurgency threat to a group that negotiated their own dissolution in less than 15 years. The Colombian government went from a nearly failed state to a sovereign power in control of its territory. It’s an amazing shift from the late 1990’s.
11. There are going to be setbacks in the coming six months. There will be moments that this peace agreement may be on the verge of falling apart. Don’t let it.