Ken Frankel is chair of the Canadian Council for the Americas
Sometimes the more things remain the same, the more they change. That’s the hope the Colombians warily embraced in Sunday’s presidential election.
Although the campaign got sidetracked by a nasty throw down of personal attacks, it presented one central choice: if and how Colombia should negotiate peace with the country’s largest guerrilla group (FARC) and one with which the State has been at war for half a century. That’s 50 years that have cost the lives of 220,000 people, forced five million Colombians to flee their country and caused incalculable costs to the economy. Several days ago President Juan Manuel Santos announced that he had reached an agreement with the other and smaller guerilla group (ELN) to commence peace negotiations.
Colombians voted to empower Mr. Santos to continue negotiating along the path he has been pursuing for 18 months. The peace coalition he cobbled together triumphed over an opposition determined to take a step back in the peace process, impose pre-conditions to continued negotiations and rattle the sabre at Venezuela, a troubling neighbour but critical party to the negotiations.
Many Colombians voted for Mr. Santos’s peace efforts despite misgivings about his overall performance and perceived aloofness. They held a favourable opinion of his able challenger.
The view of the outside world is that Mr. Santos has, as he stated in his speech to the Canadian Council of the Americas in Toronto in 2011, maintained the upper hand with the tacit threat to pull the plug if the negotiations don’t progress steadily. To the outside world, it seems that the parties have made significant progress – if not at the unrealistic breakneck speed once promised, then certainly more quickly than the time taken to broker peace in other parts of the world. To the outside world, it seems that the terms Mr. Santos has negotiated thus far are reasonable. And to the outside world, it appears that this is Colombia’s best chance for negotiating peace since the conflict began.
But, except for the Colombia diaspora that fled, the outside world hasn’t been affected so deeply and personally. It hasn’t been asked to hold in abeyance its well-founded suspicions of the guerillas. It will not be forced during the next phase of the negotiations to make painful sacrifices in how past barbarous crimes will be treated or possibly excused. It is not enduring continued guerilla attacks. And it won’t be asked to endure the complications of implementing a peace agreement in a country where the strands of innocence, complicity, self-protection and self-aggrandizement are uncomfortably intertwined at all levels of society.
Colombians want peace, but many would prefer understandably not to have to endure the process of making peace. Rural areas that continue to be victimized have been the biggest supporters of Mr. Santos’s peace efforts. But many urban dwellers, who comprise 75 per cent of the electorate and are no longer under threat of guerilla violence, would prefer to focus on other priorities.
So, why did the peace process become the central issue in this campaign?
It is because the candidates framed the peace process as the essential issue and forced citizens to decide something that many preferred not to confront. It may not have been in both candidates’ political interest to do so, but neither candidate backed away from the issue. Imagine that: an election in which the leaders assumed the responsibility to frame and force citizens to decide a critical issue of national purpose and destiny.
We have also learned that it’s not always “the economy, stupid”. Colombia has registered impressive numbers in many of the leading economic indicators that supposedly guarantee re-election for an incumbent – significant growth in GDP and jobs, decreases in inequality and poverty, maintenance of low inflation. Its growth during the last quarter was among the top several countries in the world.
Despite the economic success, Mr. Santos was forced to fight for his political life. He lost the first round of elections and squeaked by in this second round.
Colombia’s badly fractured political environment exacerbates the challenges that stand in the way of peace and the Nobel Prize that awaits. The guerillas must act seriously. The opposition political parties must act constructively, show more flexibility and stop using the peace process to score political points. Mr. Santos must forge a national consensus, without which peace will neither come nor endure. To do so he must show more agility in dealing with the opposition political parties than he has thus far.
Colombians voted to remain with Mr. Santos with the hope of an enormous change in Colombia’s destiny. We will see whether the political class will deliver on that hope.