A Castro brought the factions together.

Photographer: LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images

Colombia on the Brink of Peace

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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For as long as most Colombians can remember, their country has been at war with itself. So there was more than a little skepticism when President Juan Manuel Santos paid a surprise visit to Havana on Sept. 23 and shook hands with Rodrigo Londono, supreme leader  of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the most fearsome guerrilla band in the Americas.

The last time a Colombian president agreed to sit with the enemy, in 1999, the Farc commander left Andres Pastrana alone at the negotiating table. Since then, the empty chair has been Colombia's most enduring metaphor for political debacle.

The talks are not over; government and guerrillas acknowledged they still have six more months of negotiating, plenty of time for backsliding or sabotage. And only at the end of the process, and only if it is successful, will the shooting stop and will Farc begin to lay down its arms. But after three years of intensive talks and back-channel diplomacy by the United States and Cuba, plus the blessings of Pope Francis, the Western Hemisphere's most conflicted nation finally seems to be at the brink of peace.

The Cuba talks have been fraught. What else to expect from the war against a cocaine-fueled Marxist insurgency that has claimed some 220,000 lives and displaced five million people in 50 years? But the elation was barely contained at the long horseshoe table in Havana as Norwegian mediator Dag Nylander read off the bullet points of the agreement. “We have ensured justice, and not impunity, and we have set deadlines to reach an end to the war,” Santos told reporters in Havana.

There is plenty for both sides to dislike in the agreement on so-called transitional justice, which will determine the fate of war criminals. While both guerrillas and rogue state security forces face up to 20 years in prison for combat atrocities or human rights violations, by coming clean before a special tribunal they can reduce their penalties to just five to eight years. Those found to have committed "political crimes" will be granted amnesty.

The deal to allow the defanged Farc to transform itself into a legal political party means that victims and survivors of war crimes may one day have to watch yesterday's drug thug become a mayor or a lawmaker.

Nor will the Farc be required to formally renounce its revolutionary cant to replace one of Latin America's most traditional democracies with its own utopia, inspired by a toxic blend of Lenin, Mao and Latin liberator Simon Bolivar. 

Such indulgences went down badly among Colombian hardliners, starting with former president Alvaro Uribe, a onetime political mentor of Santos and now his harshest critic.

By rights, Uribe ought to be sharing the glory. The Farc might never have come to the table in Havana if not for the all-out, eight-year war Uribe waged against them, with Santos as his defense minister. But that was then, and now Uribe spends much of his day hurling outrage at Santos and other purported turncoats from his Twitter account, with four million followers.

Santos's gamble raises the larger question of whether a country can bid for reconciliation before the killing is done and when wounds are still fresh. "Argentina tried, but the focus was on truth and payback, which proved tumultuous," said Javier Corrales, a political scientist at Amherst College. "The country had to wait a generation to put perpetrators in jail."

And yet for all the poison of partisanship and the doubts over the peace process, Colombians seemed unwilling to wait. Santos won re-election last year -- beating Uribe's handpicked candidate -- and stayed the course in Havana.

"If you consider not just the historic agreement but the spectacle of having it happen in Havana and the confluence of interests in Colombia, Cuba and the U.S., and the pope's visit, this is pretty mind blowing," Robert Karl, a Colombia scholar at Princeton University, told me.

Colombians may not see it that way. But after three years of vexing talks, andhalf a century of bloodshed, patience for stalemate was wearing thin, said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. That context makes the Havana deal look all the more courageous -- or desperate, take your pick. Now all Santos needs is to win the peace.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net