Since the April 9th rallies for peace, President Santos appears to be recognizing the need for a public campaign to accompany the confidential peace negotiations in Havana. Signs of this new era are apparent in the quantity and quality of expressions of high-level international support for Santos and the peace process, on the one hand, and more concerted efforts to educate the Colombian public about the peace process on the other.
U.S. Support for Colombia
Earlier this week, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Bogota, where he applauded the announcement that the Colombian government and the FARC had reached agreement on the first agenda item in Havana. Biden reiterated U.S. support for Colombian leaders “on the battlefield” as well as “at the negotiating table” in their “efforts to reach an historic agreement with the FARC.”
He underscored the Colombian role in training security and police forces around the world, and congratulated President Santos for “consolidating human rights, the rule of law, and taking the steps necessary for holding human rights violators accountable before the civilian judicial system.” The latter has been a source of particular concern in some quarters, given efforts to expand military court jurisdiction on some human rights cases.
The U.S. Agency for International Development Director Rajiv Shah and his advisors had traveled to Bogota just a few weeks earlier. Shah expressed optimism about the peace process, noting that the United States wants “to be one of the principal allies for Colombia in its peace process,” and promising continued U.S. support during the process.
VP Biden’s visit and that of USAID Administrator Shah came on the heels of a request by U.S. Congressional leaders for the Obama administration to throw its support behind the peace process in Colombia. In a letter dated April 18th, 62 members of the U.S. Congress had encouraged Secretary of State John Kerry to pursue a U.S. policy that gives support to “peace, development and human rights in Colombia,” to reorient U.S. aid for peace and, specifically, to support the peace accords. Particular asks included:
- Support for International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights
- Open talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN)
- Inclusion of victims and civil society, especially women, in the peace process
- Insistence on truth-telling about the kidnapped, disappeared, child soldiers and land mines
- Assurances that civilian courts will maintain jurisdiction over extrajudicial executions known as “falsos positivos,” sexual violence, and grave human rights abuses
- Support for an independent truth commission, as requested by Colombian human rights organizations and NGO’s.
The Congressional letter seems to have prompted more rigorous public endorsements of the peace process by U.S. authorities, who had previously been somewhat reticent to make public statements on the issue unless asked.
Unexpected FARC Response
The letter also received a rather unanticipated direct response from the FARC negotiating team. In a letter to the Congressmen, the FARC’s delegation in Havana welcomed the Congressional gesture of support for the peace process made in the letter to Secretary of State Kerry. The delegation agreed that the ELN should be included in the conversations, and noted that “the inclusion of Afro, indigenous, women, victims associations” will “guarantee the success” of the process. On the question of human rights abuses, they called for an independent Truth Commission to clarify the crimes committed during the war. Finally, they called on the Congressional leaders to intervene to facilitate the presence of Simon Trinidad, a FARC spokesperson who is serving a sentence in a U.S. jail in Colorado. This request had fallen on deaf ears when they wrote to President Barak Obama last year in the midst of the U.S. electoral campaign. Pablo Catatumbo, one of the new FARC negotiators, reiterated the request at the launch of the ninth round of peace talks in Havana on May 15th.
Broad International Support for the Peace Process
There has been a steady stream of high-level international statements and visitors to Colombia in recent weeks. In addition to VP Biden, on May 10, President Santos welcomed German President Joachim Gauck to the Casa de Nariño, where they discussed Germany’s experience in reconciling after the war. A few days later, the Colombian President met with ex-president Bill Clinton in Cartagena. Other recent visiting dignitaries have included Portuguese President Aníbal Cavaco Silva, former United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Spanish ex-President Felipe Gonzalez. Each of them publicly expressed their support for Colombia’s peace process. Gonzalez noted that for the first time in 30 years, he sees “clear opportunities for peace” (oportunidades claras de paz). President Silva promised the support of Portugal and all of the European Union in Colombia’s advance toward peace, noting that “peace is fundamental for the consolidation of democracy, but peace is also fundamental for development, and the improvement and well-being of populations.” A recent visit to Colombia by Japanese Minister of Economy and his delegation of 50 businessman explored increased investment opportunities given the expectation of a safer business environment.
On May 17th, Jose M. Insulza, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, delivered the report on “The Problem of Drugs in the Americas,” a project that Santos spearheaded during the Sixth Summit of the Americas held in Cartagena in April 2012, and following the recent joint statement that agreement on rural reforms had been reached, Insulza posited that “this first agreement may open the path to other substantive agreements on the remaining items on the negotiating agenda.”
Catherine Ashton, a high-level representative of the European Union welcomed the agreement, noting that the theme of land and rural development is at the heart of the armed conflict in Colombia” and this agreement, even though it is partial, presumes a new impetus for the Havana negotiations.”
The newly arrived head of the United Nations in Bogotá, Fabrizio Hochschild, expressed the “100 percent backing” of the UN Secretary General for the peace process, and underscored the economic benefits of peace (See interview in El Tiempo). He noted, “I come with the profound conviction in the value of peace, not only because it is something that every human being requires for their development, but because the obstacles to growth, to development in the regions, to areas, to individuals, is enormous when there is conflict. (“Vengo con la convicción profunda del valor de la paz, no solo porque es algo que cada humano requiere para desarrollarse plenamente, sino porque el obstáculo al crecimiento, al desarrollo de regiones, de áreas, de personas es enorme cuando hay conflicto.”)
Selling Peace at Home
On a separate note, the campaign to bring the public along was given a boost on May 9th, when, before a packed auditorium at the Universidad Externado de Colombia, some of the key figures in the highest echelons of Colombian society discussed the legal and judicial dilemmas of Colombia’s peace process. In a rare public appearance as High Commissioner for Peace, Sergio Jaramillo expressed confidence that the conflict will end, outlined the government’s priorities for the peace process, and described the road ahead. (Read his statement here.) The peace commissioner underscored that there will be no general amnesty, that the government and the FARC will address the rights of the victims, and that these will become more central in the next phase of transition. During the transition period, which is expected to last 10 years or more, the countryside, where the war has been carried out, will be transformed through regional peace processes. Peace will need to be built from the ground up, asserted Jaramillo. He reminded the audience that “the signing of the agreement is the real start of the peace process, not the end.” This is an important perspective to keep in mind.
Meanwhile, former President Uribe continues to rally his Twitter followers, accusing President Santos of negotiating with narco-terrorists. As electoral politics pick up, the debates are likely to crescendo.