Eyeing a more peaceful Colombia.

Photographer: PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images

For Colombia, Peace Will Be the Hardest Part

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.”
Read More.
a | A

You might have missed it in the cacophony over Brexit, but the longest shooting war in the western hemisphere ended June 23. On the same day Britons voted to ditch Europe, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by their acronym FARC, announced their historic agreement to lay down arms.

The deal, sealed in Havana, Cuba, is a Latin American watershed, coming after 52 years of bloody conflict that claimed 220,000 lives and uprooted 6.5 million -- and following countless false truces. It means the region's most conflicted nation finally has a chance not just at real peace, but also at restoring the civility and democratic normalcy that Colombians lost three generations ago.

President Juan Manuel Santos estimated that merely ending the shooting will be an economic boon, adding one percent to Colombia's gross national product of about $380 billion. He also knows that implementing the peace plan will cost a bundle: $16.8 billion over the next decade, Bank of America estimated.

Santos doesn't need reminding that waging peace won't be easy. Consider that the talks in Havana have dragged on for nearly four years, deepening public distrust and offering fodder for partisan discontents, who have cheered every setback. And it's not only the political hawks like Alvaro Uribe, Santos's predecessor-turned-arch rival, who are worried about insurgents -- practiced in kidnapping and ambush -- now taking civilian jobs or running for political office, as the peace accord allows. "Peace has been injured," Uribe said on Thursday.

"Loathing for the FARC runs deep in Colombia," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C. think tank. "It's been a long and wearing process, and anyone who thinks this is going to be smooth is naive."

Both the leftist guerrillas and the right-wing paramilitary groups, such as the Bacrim, still have to make good on their promise to deliver their arms to United Nations inspectors. If all goes to plan, those surrendered weapons will then be melted down to make three different monuments to memorialize the hard-won peace.

It's a lovely gesture, but Colombians probably shouldn't hold their breath. At least, that's the message from Victor Builes, a former financial operator for a rival guerrilla band, who turned himself in recently. He warned Colombian authorities that instead of coming clean, many FARC combatants are likely to burrow further into the criminal underworld, throwing in with holdout rebels or taking up drug and gold smuggling.

Santos, for his part, is betting that the skeptics will come around when the full peace accord is due to be signed in July and they see hostilities have ceased. Colombians have until September to make up their minds: That's when they'll be called upon to vote in a yes-no referendum on the accord.

As hard as getting the guerrillas to the peace table has been, the tougher part comes now. "Colombia isn't suddenly going to break out in peace," Shifter said.

The job for Santos comes down to "managing expectations," Princeton University historian Robert Karl told me. In one important way, however, Santos already has. It's both odd and somehow fitting that the Colombian peace was fostered in Havana, hosted by Cuban strongman Raul Castro and blessed by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

For decades, socialist Cuba was the polestar for Latin America's left, offering its aid, comfort and revolutionary aura to generations of rebels, from the FARC to Venezuela's Bolivarian socialism.

Now Havana is Washington's newest best friend, Maduro's hapless regime is a shambles, and the "pink tide" of left-wing authoritarianism that once made Latins swoon is giving way to market-minded pragmatists, like Argentina's Mauricio Macri and Juan Manuel Santos.

Who said peace and irony don't mix?

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:
Susan Warren at susanwarren@bloomberg.net