The historic 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia–People’s Army) formally ended the conflict between them, but it also became a major fault line in Colombian politics, dividing those who felt the accord represented a reasonable basis for peace and those who felt it was too forgiving of the FARC. In the past year, however, this harsh division, while still reverberating in political life, has begun to lessen as the accord has gradually grown institutional roots. The coronavirus pandemic has, surprisingly, further reduced tension thanks to the achievement of remarkable consensus in the country over a science-driven approach to managing the deadly virus. Yet the pandemic has also brought to the fore a range of socioeconomic and other political issues that constitute other axes of division that the country must now grapple with as it moves beyond the battles of the past.
A Long-Standing Division Eases
The major divide affecting political life in Colombia in recent years centers around the 2016 peace agreement. The divide is not about whether it was appropriate to end the conflict by negotiated means (which has historically been supported by the majority of the population) but instead what concessions to the FARC are acceptable in return for peace. Many Colombians believe that the agreement was too favorable to the FARC and resent both the FARC’s newly gained right to participate as a political party and the lenient treatment afforded to guerrilla members under a transitional justice scheme agreed in the accord that granted them light sentences in exchange for their confessions.
To understand the depth and power of this division, it is necessary to recall what the FARC has meant for many Colombians: in the peak years of the conflict, the late 1990s, the group controlled large swaths of Colombian territory under a harsh militaristic grip, regularly attacked towns and villages in government-held areas, and kidnapped thousands in the Colombian jungles, including many members of the national security forces. The hard-line, so-called democratic security strategy pursued by then president Álvaro Uribe (2002–2010) in the 2000s involved not just hunting down FARC commanders but developing a harsh rhetoric that sought to stoke public resentment of the FARC. Thus, when peace was finally achieved in 2016, it rested on sociopolitical soil marked not only by hope for a peaceful future but also by profound distrust and bitterness toward the FARC.
The first presidential elections after the signing of the agreement, in 2018, were dominated by conflicting attitudes toward the FARC and the value of the peace agreement. The hard-line camp, represented by President Iván Duque Márquez, a protégé of Uribe, harshly criticized the agreement and won the election. Once in power, however, Duque did not fully dismantle the accord. As a result, ongoing arguments about the agreement gradually became less about trying to overturn the agreement and more about each side playing to the entrenched sentiments of its core electoral base.
In fact, by late 2020, the peace agreement had lost appeal as a primary electoral dividing line. First, much of the agreement’s transitional infrastructure has been put into place, including justice provisions for human rights violations, the reintegration of former fighters, and the conversion of the FARC into a political party. The development of these schemes has built significant momentum and reinforced the peace process. The FARC’s admission that kidnappings were a mistake—as well as revelations about an ominous body count policy implemented by the Armed Forces that led to scores of “false positives,” or deaths of people wrongly accused of being part of the guerrilla—have also contributed to cementing the peace process. Attacks on the agreement and attempts to change it have repeatedly failed, showing both growing institutional strength and accountability as well as the declining appeal of claiming the agreement amounted to handing the country over to FARC communists. Both Duque’s and Uribe’s popularities have declined in the past months. Against this backdrop, their threats to tear down the agreement no longer sound feasible, let alone desirable, to most Colombians.
Second, there have been increasing calls—from different sides of the political spectrum, including elites—to overcome this long-standing polarization and develop a “pact on the fundamental” (acuerdo sobre lo fundamental). This is very much in line with a decade-old Colombian tradition to seek elite-level consensus at times of profound division. It is notable because even new elites on the left and in the center are taking part in this call to mitigate extreme polarization. In sum, while polarization may still pay off in electoral terms, the main political actors will have to find new divides to foster it.
A third factor explaining the change of emphasis in the political debate relates to the sources of ongoing violence, which is still considerable despite the peace agreement. Much of this violence stems from conflicts related to the drug trade and criminal organizations, which lie outside the scope of the peace agreement. Critics of the agreement with the FARC point at a production increase in coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine. According to the United Nations, in 2019, coca leaf production levels were the highest ever recorded—proof of the agreement’s failure and of the FARC’s willing deceit. But for most domestic and international experts and observers, fighting the drug trade is a larger task than resolving the issue of the FARC. As a result, the accusation that Colombia’s illicit economy–related violence can be attributed to a problematic peace agreement is not persuasive to many.
Somewhat surprisingly, the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in Colombia has reinforced a more constructive tone and content of the political debate. In contrast with other Latin American countries, remarkable policy consensus has prevailed in Colombia on the epidemiological management of the crisis, facilitating scientific convergence among the national and local governments (most notably between Duque and Claudia López, the mayor of Bogotá, who was elected with a center-left coalition). One tangible result of this consensus has been the prevention of health system overload, as has occurred in other countries with much stronger health institutions than Colombia.
According to a recent survey by consulting firm Cifras & Conceptos, the National Administrative Department of Statistics, the National Health Institute, and the health minister enjoy some of the highest levels of popular support, indicating overall satisfaction with this technocratic approach to the virus. This is also reflected in popular support of the more than 180 presidential decrees enacted during the initial lockdown and the subsequent months, covering topics such as the sanitary emergency; the closing of borders with Venezuela; more flexible tax payments and public contracts; consumer credits; subsidies for lower-income groups to access food and health services; the closing of schools; regulations on the size of private, religious, and public gatherings; and limitations on national and international travel.
At the same time, the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief existing social and economic divisions, many of which stood at the source of the significant social unrest that erupted in late 2019. A major national strike in November 2019 started when university students took to the streets demanding affordable, high-quality education. The movement expanded to include feminists; environmentalists opposing deforestation, mining activities, and the sale and export of shark fins; defendants of the peace agreement; peasant communities criticizing the slow speed of illicit crop substitution; victims of the armed conflict decrying failure in reparation payments and attacks on historical memory; Indigenous leaders demanding protection of their ancestral lands; public teachers seeking job security and better wages; rights activists demanding an end to the killing of social leaders and a reform of the police; anticorruption activists; critics of the banks and of neoliberal policies, including free trade agreements; parties on the political left; and skeptics of the political system in general.
The movement, which was marked by daily pot-banging (cacerolazo), has failed to keep its momentum, not only because of the pandemic (which operated as a temporary deterrent and distraction) but also because the surfeit of issues and leaders made a clear direction impossible. Those hardest hit in both economic and health terms were already poorer, more disenfranchised, and less engaged in politics—underlining the continuing importance of the issues raised in the outbursts of social unrest, especially for youth who played a central role in the unrest. In this way, social unrest and the pandemic have combined to lay bare the many pending contradictions in Colombian socioeconomic and political life that the civil conflict had long overshadowed.
The growing rootedness of the peace agreement, the calls for depolarizing politics and society, and the realization that the pandemic’s harsh social consequences need to be addressed for the benefit of the whole of society—including to reduce violence and insecurity in several regions—may ultimately augur well for Colombian democracy. Colombian institutions have shown remarkable resilience and strength in these demanding times and have been able to channel criticism and unrest. Colombian civil society has gained maturity, and a significant center-left coalition seems to be in the making.
At the same time, risks remain. Most importantly, booming illicit economies related to the drug trade and illegal mining of gold and coltan (especially along the border with Venezuela) provide ample opportunity for old and new criminal organizations to operate and consolidate their territorial presence. As a result, the aftermath of FARC demobilization has seen a reconfiguration of armed groups and rising insecurity in some peripheral areas. Murders of social leaders and former FARC combatants have been frequent in these regions. In addition, needs laid bare by the pandemic and by the steady flow of Venezuelan migrants into the country have raised the possibility of diverting funds initially earmarked for peace implementation. This risks failing to fulfill the promise of strengthening the state and formal economies in regions that have been traditionally left out of national development, a crucial component of the peace agreement and a trademark of a wide academic and policy literature suggesting that building capable states is essential to building peace.
Several steps are needed to help the country confront its deep socioeconomic divisions and inequalities.
First, government at the national and local levels should promote dialogue among institutions at the central and local levels and between institutions and different sectors of civil society to address the concerns raised in the 2019 social unrest, which were heightened by the pandemic. It is time to seize the opportunity created by calls for overcoming polarization over the peace agreement and to address issues such as historical inequality and the urban-rural divide. The upcoming presidential campaign may boost or hamper such an improvement of the political debate. It may provide an opportunity for the political center to gain strength, as in the previous presidential election, or it could end up promoting polarizing messages by candidates seeking to gain the public’s favor.
Second, sources of ongoing violence need to be addressed. Most importantly, security needs to be bolstered in the most vulnerable regions by strengthening the state response beyond military means. This is crucial to increase Colombians’ trust in institutions and their well-being and productivity. In addition, the Colombian and other foreign governments should continue to promote a systemic approach to the discussion of the drug trade and its social, political, and economic impact at the international level. There is abundant evidence suggesting that, from both a public health and security perspective, Colombia cannot fight this problem alone.
In sum, Colombia today faces both old battles and new challenges arising from the pandemic. Whether this will turn into an opportunity will depend on the vision, negotiation skills, and democratic will of political and civil society leaders across the country.
Angelika Rettberg is a professor in the Political Science Department at Universidad de los Andes. She is also the co-director of the Transformation and Empowerment Stream of the Gender, Security, and Justice Hub at the London School of Economics. In 2018, she served as a negotiator for the Colombian government in the peace talks with the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN).