The world is mired in insurgencies, with the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, the persistence of Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine, and the continuing attacks of Boko Haram and Al Shabab in Africa. But at least one seemingly intractable guerrilla war — Latin America’s longest — may be coming to an end. Colombia is poised to reach a negotiated end after 50 years of fighting against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the Marxist-Leninist insurgent group known by the acronym FARC. Laudable on their own terms, these talks also shed light on the social changes and negotiating strategies it might take to end other civil wars around the world.
Twenty months of negotiations in Cuba have yielded fruit: provisional agreements by rebels to give up the cultivation of drugs, in exchange for land reform and the opportunity for FARC to convert into a nonviolent political party. One crucial innovation was the unprecedented move to invite five delegations of FARC’s victims to the negotiation table, where they had a chance to confront the militants about their crimes. These interactions help promote truth and reconciliation, and Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos’ negotiating team should be commended for incorporating them into the peace process. “At the beginning of the negotiations, [FARC representatives] said they were victims, and that there were no victims created by them,” recalled Luis Carlos Villegas, Colombia’s ambassador to the United States. “Now they have changed. They sat face to face with people who said, ‘You kidnapped my daughter,’ ‘You killed my mother,’ and then had a conversation.” FARC members must acknowledge the harm they inflicted. And when victims feel a sense of closure and accountability, they can more easily accept the painful compromises — such as reduced sentences or even amnesty for FARC members — that are necessary to end the conflict.
Such talks aren’t always possible. The Colombian guerrillas likely wouldn’t be at the negotiating table if not for the relentless military campaign of former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, whose father was killed by FARC. When Uribe took power in 2002, FARC was believed to have more than 20,000 rural fighters. Today, its ranks have dwindled to fewer than 8,000. FARC is willing to end the war because it’s losing.
Also helpful is Colombia’s recent economic growth. The country now attracts some of the world’s highest levels of foreign direct investment. Government spending on education and universal health care has boosted the quality of life. It’s a government radically different than the one FARC was founded to overthrow half a century ago.
Lastly, the United States deserves some credit. A multibillion-dollar US aid package known as Plan Colombia helped the Colombian government combat organized crime and drug lords tied to FARC. In fact, Colombia has been so successful that it is training other countries, including Mexico, in these areas. In a world full of war-torn countries with governments on the verge of failure, Colombia may at last have found the magic recipe to bring about peace.