For six days it looked like, for first time in recorded history and possibly ever, the Western Hemisphere would be at peace.
On Monday, after 52 years of fighting, the government of Colombia and the revolutionary guerilla movement FARC signed an official truce. It brought to an end one of the bloodiest wars in generations, one that killed over 220,000 people. But more significantly, it was an end to the last ongoing war in the Americas.
That evening, in Bogota, thousands gathered in the central Plaza de Bolivar to watch the ceremony on massive screens, to dance and celebrate. I arrived there directly from the airport and had to be dropped off three blocks away due to crowds. It was impossible for me to navigate from one side of the plaza to the other without getting a tearful hug and several high-fives. The happiness was so real and personal I was embarrassed to be there; it felt like I had crashed a private family party.
With Colombia finally at peace, North and South America would be free of armed conflicts for the first time since Columbus landed in 1492. And this made Colombia, and the entire hemisphere, part of a much larger global trend. The number of international armed conflicts around the world declined steadily from 1945 to 2011; and the number of civil wars has fallen by 40 percent since the end of the Cold War. The global death rate from these conflicts also fell, from 22 per 100,000 people to 0.3. And, there are currently no wars between two uniformed forces. The last of these was the Iraq War in 2003. The recent fighting in Syria has caused some of these numbers to deteriorate, but the long-term trend is unmistakable — the world is getting safer.
Admittedly, it doesn’t feel that way. A recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found 42 percent of Americans believe the United States is less safe than it was in 2001. This should not be surprising. Our social media feeds, newspapers, and TV screens are filled with brutal images of fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The proliferations of smart phones means that almost anyone can report the news, share images of dying victims or falling bombs, sometimes live. The cumulative effect is visceral. It’s terrifying. We are left convinced that he world is a dangerous place. And many in our political class shamelessly encourage this false impression. As Donald Trump is proving, fear can be a great motivator in the political arena.
But regardless of the fear mongering, the truth stands: Virtually the entire world outside of the Middle East and parts of central Africa are at peace. Why? The reasons are complex but there are some consistent themes. Democracy is more prevalent, and the people who used to do the fighting and dying are now doing the voting. In the case of Colombia, if the country had been ruled by a military junta still, the national leadership may have scorned any compromises with FARC.
And, not coincidentally, with a more open political system Colombia’s civil society has also strengthened, particularly the media. This is a trend which also happening around the world, the proliferation of less restricted (and less profitable) media and the emergence of citizen journalists.
Finally, Colombia’s economy has become more integrated both domestically and internationally. This has brought a new prosperity, a growing middle class, and with it a more stable society. This too is an international trend. In the last twenty years more people have been lifted out of extreme poverty around the world than at anytime in history. When young men have jobs, they’re less likely to pick up guns.
Considering all of these factors, almost all observers expected that Colombians would follow this global trend and vote to support the peace agreement
But they didn’t. On Sunday a nation-wide referendum was held to ratify the deal, and the results shocked the world: The voters said no to peace.
It is too soon to definitively answer why, but I did see some hints that predicted Colombians might reject the peace accord. A couple days after the celebrations in Bogota, I travelled to the frontier town of Vista Hermosa, deep in FARC territory. The mood there was far less jubilant. The local governor and officials from Bogota had flown in on a Blackhawk helicopter, with a well-armed military protection detail, to encourage locals to vote “Si” in the referendum. These townspeople had suffered during the war. The FARC fighters had long preyed on them for protection money, and everyone knew someone who had been killed or kidnapped by the guerillas. They were relieved at the cease-fire, but they also wanted “justice.”
President Juan Manuel Santos was forced to make many concessions to get the FARC to the negotiating table, this included promises of immunity. Some of the Colombians I met thought the guerillas were literally getting away with murder, and that a truly just peace would require trying and imprisoning many of the FARC fighters.
So, the hemisphere’s long sought moment of peace came, and then it went. Government negotiators predicted that if voters rejected the accord, the cease-fire would end, and it would be years before talks would begin again. But we can take some comfort in knowing that Colombians are swimming against the tide of history, and, with time, they too will be carried finally towards a more peaceful and just future.
Follow Scott Gilmore on Twitter @Scott_Gilmore.