The Guardian view on Colombia: peace beckons | Editorial

After nearly 70 years of war and a quarter of a million casualties, the guerillas are talking peace. There’s a long road ahead

Fear breeds fear, hate spawns hate. Violence begets further violence. In Colombia, half a century of war has killed 230,000 people and displaced more than 6 million; tens of thousands are still missing. “We don’t have even the slightest memories of what it means to live in peace,” president Juan Manuel Santos observed. Yet his government and the leftist Farc rebels have now signed a ceasefire agreement and stand on the brink of a historic peace deal. The constitutional court has approved a plebiscite on the deal. Yet the public’s hunger for peace appears to be accompanied by scepticism about the pact. One rebel faction has already warned it will not lay down arms.

But no one should underestimate what has been achieved. The proposals are ambitious, comprehensive and specific. Importantly, they include pledges to address the roots of the conflict by boosting rural development, with some land redistribution, and tackling the world’s largest cocaine production industry. They are also imaginative, detailing plans to build three giant monuments from surrendered arms.

The rebels were forced to the table by a massive US-backed military offensive under the previous president Álvaro Uribe – an opponent of this deal – but they were also perhaps encouraged to talk by a surge that saw Latin American leftwingers take power through the ballot box, not the bullet. Inevitably, perhaps, the transitional justice agreement, with punishments for former guerrillas ranging from community sentences to 20-year jail terms, is controversial.

Peace has been possible because of, not in spite of, the involvement of victims. While some have chosen to forgive, the country is determined not to forget: its National Centre for Historical Memory stresses the importance of recording the truth in the search for reconciliation and a sustainable peace. Colombia’s vocal women’s movement has also been involved in shaping the deal, and experts say it may be the first time LGBTI rights have been part of peace negotiations.

Critics complain that four years of talks have distracted President Santos from the daily issues facing Colombians and suggest that the “peace dividend” he predicts for GDP will prove relatively modest when set against the costs of the process. They warn that some fighters are likely to join drugs cartels. Farc has long “taxed” the cocaine industry and elements of the group have clear links to trafficking – as have state actors and rightwing paramilitaries. No one thinks that reintegrating 12,000 guerrillas will be easy, nor pretends that the peace can be guaranteed. But a deal will allow Colombia’s government and people to focus on improving living conditions and free up resources previously poured into the war. Neutralising Farc opens a space for a moderate left, which may strengthen political processes. President Santos will be able to redouble efforts to curb the expanding cocaine trade, focusing on public health and crop substitution.

He has already urged the international community to abandon prohibition-based approaches. Conflict and the narcotics trade have long been intertwined in Colombia. Those wishing to support its step towards peace and stability – and particularly those western countries where most of the cocaine is consumed – might want to reconsider their own drugs policies.



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