Determined efforts to free Colombia of its last guerrillas
By Juan Manuel Santos, President of the Republic of Colombia.
During the Cold War, tensions between the West and the Soviet Union affected virtually all countries worldwide. As a result, throughout Latin America, guerrilla groups emerged, seeking to destabilize military dictatorships and attain democracy, freedom, and policy reform goals that they believed could not be achieved peacefully.
Above all, it was the Cuban Revolution of 1959 in which armed revolutionaries successfully overthrew the military dictator Fulgencio Batista that inspired this movement. Indeed, Che Guevara, an icon of the revolution, died in Bolivia while attempting to export the guerrilla project.
At the end of 2012, conditions in Latin America are very different. Democracy is not the exception, but the rule; military regimes have succumbed to the power of the ballot box; and guerrilla groups have largely become a relic of the past.
But Colombia the region’s oldest and most stable democracy is still plagued by illegal, armed guerrilla organizations. Unlike in other countries, where guerrillas pursued exclusively political demands, Colombia’s guerrilla groups became involved in drug trafficking, which transformed them into lethal institutional monsters, one part subversive organization and one part criminal mafia.
In response, citizens illegally formed armed self-defence groups. But these organizations ultimately exacerbated violence, generated land dispossession and forced displacement, and helped to prolong the conflict for nearly five decades.
As a result, generations of Colombians have grown up surrounded by violence, never having known real peace. Former members of several of the guerrilla groups that arose during the 1960′s and 1970′s have been reintegrated into Colombian society following peace agreements.
Some have even held important political positions, serving as ministers, members of congress, governors, and mayors. For example, Bogotá’s current mayor, Gustavo Petro, was a member of the M-19 guerrilla group in the 1980′s.
Nowadays, only two groups remain immersed in an anachronistic struggle: the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the larger, older, and better funded of the two, and the National Liberation Army (ELN). After winning the presidency in 2002, Álvaro Uribe vowed to defeat the guerrillas who have added terrorism to their repertoire mounting an offensive that employed all of the power of the state and its law-enforcement authorities.
I have had the opportunity first as Uribe’s defense minister, and now as President to deal the strongest blows to the guerrillas and drug-trafficking gangs. The government’s commitment to the fight against terrorism has already caused FARC’s membership to plummet, from more than 20,000 a decade ago to little more than 8,000 today.
We will not let up until Colombia is free of guerrilla armies. But this irrevocable commitment to defeat terrorism does not preclude us from also prudently pursuing a solution to the conflict through dialogue while avoiding mistakes made in an earlier round of talks, during which a prolonged cease-fire allowed the FARC to regain some strength.
After nearly two years of exploratory conversations, formal peace talks were initiated in Oslo, Norway. The talks moved to Havana, Cuba, where they were held until their conclusion. The Colombians are counting on the talks to result in agreement on a clear path toward the end of internal armed conflict. But, given that the guerrillas have thwarted Colombians’ hopes in the past, we are approaching the negotiations with cautious optimism.
The serious, realistic, and sober peace process that we have begun with the FARC could end the internal armed conflict in Colombia, implying the defeat, once and for all, of the continent’s guerrilla groups and bringing down the curtain on a half-century of senseless violence. Indeed, this outcome would contribute to peace and stability for the entire region.
The conflict’s end would also bolster development efforts in Colombia already a model of democracy and political and economic stability. Even in the wake of the global economic crisis, Colombia’s economy has been growing at an average rate of close to 5 per cent, while benefiting from unprecedented inflows of foreign investment. And Colombian governance is admired worldwide.
Reaching an agreement with the FARC to end the conflict which implies the group’s disarmament and demobilization would allow Colombia’s star to shine more brightly than ever. The Colombian government is committed to making every possible effort to realize the dream of a guerrilla-free country and continent in 2013. – Project Syndicate