President Juan Manuel Santos not only has the historic opportunity to end the longest and most violent conflict in Latin America’s contemporary history, but also the duty to do so.

President Barack Obama shaking hands with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon at a bilateral meeting in New York in 2010.
President Barack Obama shaking hands with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon at a bilateral meeting in New York in 2010.

He must sit down with the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) now in Havana.

The conflict, which started in 1984, has left 5.5mn victims: of murders, disappearances, kidnappings – people have been left disabled, women have been raped, children displaced, entire towns pillaged. And the conflict continues, with more victims every day, which forces Santos, all Colombians, and the entire Latin American community to think pragmatically.

Our conclusion is that there is no alternative to the one that has been undertaken by the president.

Following the path of relentless war in the hopes of a total military defeat of the FARC is a pipe dream. Former president Alvaro Uribe is the one who most adamantly opposes negotiation today. Despite the fact that he used all of his executive power to greatly reduce the power of the guerrillas, they are still strong. FARC still counts up to 8,000 combatants spread across 67 fronts in territories they know inside and out, where they can strike at any time and hide permanently.

They also have access to abundant resources, which, only in terms of drug trafficking profits, are estimated to be $1.5bn per year. They also count on combat experience that dates back to 1964. Moreover, additional military pressure would undermine the legitimacy of the state’s security policy, and increase the number of innocent victims. In the past innocent people were killed because of a policy that offered incentives for each head of a dead guerrilla.

If knocking out the FARC, as Uribe advocates, is not possible, forcing them to give up as Santos intends to do is instead the urgent goal. Yes, the bloodshed could actually end. Today, the guerrilla group is beaten to the point where they finally realise that they are not going to win political power in Colombia. This is the main point that differentiates this peace process from the last negotiation in 2001 under Andres Pastrana. This time, it is reasonable for the FARC to retreat with the best possible conditions.

Having reached this point is a credit to Uribe. The former president had the virtue to resist the status quo of a standoff that had been reached between the government and the guerrillas. That situation could have accepted FARC and other armed groups as permanent diseases endemic to the country. This would have meant giving up on the defence of Colombian citizens and endangering the nation’s future prosperity. According to the Foundation for Higher Education and Development (Fedesarrollo), an independent research entity, this war cut into GDP growth by 3.2% in 2012.

However, Santos must be the one to finish the task by balancing a negotiation in which Colombians interpret signing the peace treaty with the FARC as the surrender of the guerrilla group, even if it does not say it in those terms. At the same time, the conditions the rebels demand must appear to be magnanimous concessions granted by the state as the one responsible for ensuring the common good. This is crucial in a country so driven by a thirst for revenge.

At the same time, the Colombian context is a complex breeding ground for conflict. The FARC notwithstanding, rural policy is in great need of reform given Colombia’s long history of social inequities and strife.

It is then important to recognise that peace with the FARC would not end conflict in the nation as a whole. Despite the fact that this guerrilla group is guilty of decades of atrocious crimes, it is not guilty of many other ills afflicting Colombia.

The Colombian conflict is one where, all too often, victims turn into victimisers and victimisers become the victims. It is one where the heroes are also the villains and where everyone drinks from the corrupt fountain of drug trafficking. All this has generated countless armed groups from left and right, as well as common criminals of the most violent and corrupt sort. Sadly, a part of the state’s administration is not exempt from this.

That being said, we must vow to begin to put an end to this story somewhere. Santos has had the vision and the political strength to face the FARC. Supporting his efforts is a historic necessity.