Colombia is a nation marked by the violent nature of internal conflict. Throughout the 19th century, Colombia experienced a multitude of civil wars, often fought along party lines, that led to political, economic and social instability as well as significant loss of life. While the first half of the twentieth century was relatively peaceful, the period from 1948–1958 was disruptive enough to earn the popular moniker la violencia, and subsequent decades have been characterized by a protracted civil war and the proliferation of leftist guerrilla movements alongside the presence of vicious right-wing paramilitary groups. The nation’s increasingly autonomous military apparatus, millions of internally displaced refugees and expansive drug trade have caused Colombia to come under considerable pressure by the international community—especially the US—to pursue aggressive anti-drug and economic restructuring campaigns.
Scholars and analysts suggest various reasons for these issues’ manifestation in Colombia; ranging from the state’s historical weakness and inability to enforce the rule of law to the entrenchment of the two-party system. Over the years, however, many of these issues have been mitigated or become less of a threat to democratic governance due to the sustained efforts of recent administrations to de-escalate tensions as well as neutralize threats. Beginning in 2012, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—Colombia’s largest guerrilla group—initiated peace talks which have since culminated in a series of significant accords. The ratification of these accords by Congress on Nov. 24, 2016 seemed to mark a historic achievement: an end to the longest enduring armed conflict in the Americas.
After decades of insurgency, armed violence and terror, the ratification of the peace accords brings hope for a long-divided Colombia and enhances prospects of a fully-fledged democratic regime. However, the process has not been without extensive criticism. Until April 2015, the FARC had been conducting military operations in the midst of negotiations, facilitating public backlash. As a result of public pressure, the pace of negotiations accelerated, with the framework of a transitional justice agreement announced in September. The reaction to this agreement was varied, with the political right equating the accords to blanket amnesty for the guerillas.
Regardless of its various criticisms, this agreement, the product of lengthy negotiations earlier in the year, was reached by President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC commander Timoleon Jimenez “Timochenko” in Dec. 2015. Receiving international acclaim, this agreement on transitional justice paved the way for a final agreement achieved on June 23, 2016, when the government and the FARC signed the historic peace accords that officially ended the approximately 50-year long internal conflict that claimed anywhere from 200,000-300,000 lives, injured 600,000-800,000, and displaced 1 million others. The only hurdle that remained was a plebiscite which would be utilized for the ratification of the final agreement.
This plebiscite, however, was narrowly defeated on Oct. 2, 2016, with 50.2% percent of voters against and 48.8% supporting the agreement. The results of the plebiscite represent a clear rural-urban divide in the electorate, with many of the cities (the capital, Bogotá, being the exception) voting against the agreement and a majority of the rural municipalities (again with limited exceptions) voting in favor of the ceasefire. This has been attributed primarily to the disproportionate influence that guerilla groups such as the FARC have had in rural as opposed to urban areas. Moreover, less than 40 percent of Colombians voted in the plebiscite, following a general trend of abstention that has been a characteristic of Colombian political competitions over the last few decade, perhaps indicative of widespread dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the political system held by much of the Colombian electorate.
Forced to return to the drawing board, President Santos and the FARC leadership have, as of Nov. 29, pushed a new peace accord through Congress, this time bypassing a nationwide referendum. With a final agreement officially in place, Colombia can now start the lengthy process of institutional reformation and political restructuring as to bolster democracy and ensure a stable and lasting peace.
As always, opposition to the peace process is fierce, and as such, the process itself remains a salient point of controversy within the nation. At this juncture, however, what is important is that Colombia is on the fast track toward a peaceful and hopefully prosperous future that will allow the nation to heal and overcome its violent past.