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Colombia at Peace? Bogotá on Verge of Clinching Historic Reconciliation with FARC Rebels
The Washington Diplomat / August 2016

By Larry Luxner

Colombians love a good party, and in a year already stained by terrorism — from Brussels and Beirut to Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad and now Nice — South America’s second-largest country has finally given the world something to celebrate.

On June 23, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos signed a ceasefire with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC in Spanish), effectively ending the longest armed conflict in Latin American history. Over the last 50 years, that war has cost 250,000 lives and displaced more than six million people.

It’s not a done deal until the two sides sign a formal peace treaty, in a ceremony unlikely to take place until mid-August at the earliest. The details still have to be worked out, including the scheduling of a referendum that voters must approve for the agreement to move forward. To be sure, many of Colombia’s 49 million inhabitants aren’t pleased about the idea of making nice with one of the world’s most feared terrorist groups. Leading them is Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who led the country from 2002 to 2010. A fiercely opponent of the deal, he calls it a “capitulation” to FARC.

But Juan Carlos Pinzón, Bogotá’s man in Washington, says that’s not true at all.

“We got here through lots of sacrifice by our armed forces,” said Pinzón, who on Aug. 3 marks his first anniversary as ambassador here. “We hit hard against the terrorists, against crime and against violence. That’s how President Santos has been negotiating: peace through strength. This is a very important achievement after four years of negotiations.”

Pinzón, 44, is an expert on Colombia’s anti-FARC campaign. As Santos’s defense minister from 2011 to 2015, he pursued hardline policies against the leftist rebels, dramatically reducing the size of jungle territory they controlled while also scoring successes against another guerrilla group, the Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (ELN).

Interestingly, Santos sent Pinzón to Washington to replace his predecessor, Luís Carlos Villegas, who he promptly named defense minister — in essence giving the two men each other’s jobs. Before joining the Ministry of Defense, Pinzón held various positions as senior advisor to the executive director of the World Bank; vice president of the Colombian Banking Association; assistant vice president of investment banking at Citibank; chief of staff for the Ministry of Finance, and economist at Citigroup.

“FARC was once the largest guerrilla group in the Western Hemisphere. We were able to force them into a position of having no other choice but to negotiate peace,” he said. “We expect them to stop their criminal activities and violence, and take advantage of the opportunity to participate in Colombia’s political life.”

The ambassador added: “Of course, there are still other expressions of violence in Colombia like ELN and some criminal organizations. We will confront them as well.”

Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council’s Latin America Economic Growth Initiative, said the ceasefire is “an incredibly significant” step for Colombia.

“There have been a number of temporary ceasefires over the course of the negotiations, but the permanence of this one is a game-changer and shows that the end of the conflict is hopefully near,” he said. “The key will be to agree to final terms of a comprehensive peace deal that goes beyond the ceasefire itself. I am very optimistic that will happen. The government and the FARC have shown incredible progress. It’s been an uphill discussion over the last few years, but all the pieces are at least in place.”

Marczak calls Pinzón “not only a great diplomat, but also a well-respected member of Colombia’s military establishment” who knows his way around Capitol Hill.

“Ambassador Pinzón is a fantastic representative for the Colombian government in the U.S., having served honorably as minister of defense and personally overseeing much of the campaign against FARC,” he said. “He is the right advocate in Washington for the peace deal, and also for assuring members of Congress and the human rights community that the Colombian government will not let up militarily on the FARC if they don’t comply with the agreements.”

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said Pinzón enjoys credibility on this issue, precisely because he was formerly the minister of defense.

“He’s widely seen as somebody who represented the interests of the armed forces,” said Shifter, whose think tank has invited Pinzón to speak on various occasions. “It was very shrewd to have him during this period as ambassador in Washington. He can counter the argument that somehow Santos is turning the country over to the FARC or being soft on terrorists.”

Pinzón spoke briefly to The Washington Diplomat in mid-July at his elegant residence just off Dupont Circle.

“The main role of the Colombian armed forces is to protect people,” he told us in between meetings with various lawmakers. “Let me remind you that Colombia has had a demobilization effort for years. It’s a challenge, but Colombia is one of the few countries that even has a re-integration agency precisely dedicated to this. What was once the most violent country in the world is moving to peace and prosperity.”

However, just as ardently as Pinzón advocates the peace deal, Uribe and his allies are trashing it. In a recent interview with Americas Quarterly the former president — who left office with a 75 percent popularity rating — said that despite the government’s claims, security has actually worsened, and that cocaine production has doubled from 200 metric tons a year to more than 400 tons.

“They’re turning drug trafficking into a political crime. The FARC, even for atrocious crimes, won’t have punishment; you’ll admit to your crime and you won’t go to jail,” Uribe complained. “They government is accepting the FARC as its partner in combatting drugs, when FARC is the world’s biggest cocaine cartel.”

The fact that a former president has come out so strongly against the agreement, says Pinzón, “proves that Colombian democracy is open and strong. It allows any vision to be part of the discussion, and those debates are welcome.”

Yet Marzcak said Uribe has been campaigning in Washington for some time now against the peace deal.

“His message has been heard loud and clear, and now Santos has to dispel those concerns,” he warned. “It’s incumbent upon the government to show that this deal will be implemented according to the standards, and that those who have committed heinous human rights violations will face jail time. This is the only option.”

Cynthia Arnson, director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, agrees.

“There’s been vigorous opposition by Uribe, who was here to make his case against the peace process,” she said. “But most countries have been overwhelmingly supportive, and it’s to be expected that, even in the midst of the deep, fractious political debate in our own country, that support will continue.”

Working in Bogotá’s favor is the fact that U.S. support for Colombia has been bipartisan. Both Democrats and Republicans have longed backed Plan Colombia — a military aid program that has cost $10 billion since its implementation 16 years ago. In March, during a visit by Santos to the White House, President Obama announced he would ask Congress to allocate $450 million for a new program called Peace Colombia to help guide the country as it enters the post-conflict phase.

Although that’s an increase from the $300 million a year Colombia now receives in U.S. aid, it’s still a tiny piece of the program’s overall $2.2 billion annual price tag.

“For over 15 years, Congress has worked on a bipartisan basis to support Colombia in its fight against the FARC. Looking ahead to the future, U.S. support for Peace Colombia will be just as critical,” Shifter said. “It’s easy to rally members of Congress around an imminent security threat in our hemisphere — especially with one of our closest allies. It’s another thing to rally members of Congress to support peace.”

Congress is concerned, he said, not only about Colombia’s rising drug production but also because of the impunity issue. “The Colombians have come up with transitional justice, whereby if people acknowledge their crimes, there will be reduced penalties. Even Human Rights Watch is very concerned about this.”

When Uribe took office in 2002, FARC had an estimated 30,000 soldiers under its command. By the time he left, there were 6,800. Asked how many fighters the group has today, Pinzón said he had an idea but refused to say, for strategic reasons.

Drugs are a very real issue, especially in light of a new United Nations report showing that Colombia has overtaken Peru as the world’s top source of cocaine, with an estimated 69,000 hectares of coca under cultivation.

“FARC is very much involved in the drug trade,” said Shifter. “They see this is going to be all over soon, so they’re trying to increase production as much as they can before the agreement is implemented.”

On July 15, Colombia’s senior presidential advisor for post-conflict issues, Rafael Pardo, gave a detailed presentation at the Wilson Center on what will actually happen now that a ceasefire has been reached. In the early 1990s, Pardo became Colombia’s first civilian defense minister in four decades. He has also served as labor minister in the current government.

With the ceasefire in effect, five of the six items under negotiation in Havana are now closed: comprehensive agriculture development; political participation; ending the conflict; illegal drugs; and compensation to victims of the conflict.

“Experts say we will see between 1 and 2 percent of additional economic growth as a result of this peace agreement,” said Pinzón. “This will give Colombia the chance to increase investment in areas that were not active in the economy before.”

In simple terms, Colombia is following three roadmaps. One is related to the immediate peace agreement at hand, the second deals with FARC’s future, and the third covers Colombia’s progress over the next 10 to 20 years.

“We expect that during the next two weeks, the constitutional court will rule in favor of the plebiscite, or referendum, as a means to ratify the agreement. Then there will be the signing of the final agreement with FARC, within the next 30 days,” he said, explaining that the referendum will take place sometime in late September.

The disarmament of FARC will follow a detailed timetable, with the surrender of weapons and ammunition will be monitored and verified by a 240-member United Nations peacekeeping mission to be chaired by Javier Antonio Pérez Aquino, an Argentine general with 35 years of domestic and international peacekeeping experience.

“Our first challenge is how to stabilize regions where FARC is located now as an armed group,” said Pardo, explaining that the former guerrillas will be moved from the 100 jungle municipalities where they are now scattered to 23 specific relation centers. “We have to make sure that once FARC leaves these regions, no other group illegal will take their place or enter those regions to do illegal activities.”

The government’s overall Rapid Response Strategy — the first of three steps — will last for 18 months and cost the equivalent of $400 million. It involves four lines of action and 26 projects, as well as compensation for 30,000 victims of FARC violence.

“The second and third steps are long term. The goals are to implement the agreement and the other is to transform rural living conditions,” said Pardo, adding that the government will introduce tax incentives for companies to invest in previous conflict zones. “This will take at least 20 years and would cost a lot. There are other programs beyond the agreement, and the purpose is to close the gap between living standards of Colombians in the cities and living standards in the 20 percent of our population that lives rural areas.”

Pinzón declined to speculate how ties with Washington would fare under a Trump presidency, though he did say Colombia has tried hard to stay out of domestic politics.

“We’re working very hard to keep this bipartisan,” he said. “In the House, we got approval of $100 million more than what the administration requested, while in the Senate, we got what the administration requested. Both Republicans and Democrats support our efforts.”

Regarding the November election (Pinzón plans on attending both parties’ national conventions), he said: “It’s their country. I just hope the American people make up their minds, and regardless of who becomes president, we will need to work with the United States. U.S-Colombian relations have survived different administrations, from Presidents Clinton to Bush to Obama. So we expect the next president to continue that.”

Another subject Pinzón clearly wants to avoid is Colombia’s tense relations with neighboring Venezuela. On July 10, more than 35,000 desperate Venezuelans poured across the border into the Colombian city of Cúcuta to buy food and household goods like toilet paper and cooking oil that are no longer available at home.

Shifter calls Venezuela “a real wild card” — especially if the Maduro government continues facing unrest in the wake of massive food shortages, political repression and declining prices for oil, the country’s only real export (see “Venezuela on the Brink,” Washington Diplomat, July 2016 issue).

“There’s no issue of greater concern for senior Colombian officials than the possible implosion of Venezuela and the spillover of unrest into Colombia,” he said. “If things completely break down in Venezuela, that would really upset Colombia precisely at a time when they’re trying to stabilize the situation.”

Pinzón said he’s confident Colombia will overcome that “situation” — and that in the end, voters will support the peace plan. Nevertheless, a recent Gallup poll found that 66 percent of Colombians believe their government’s negotiations with FARC are on the wrong path, and only 27 percent support it.

“We Colombians were always a very resilient country, despite the violence. It was always able to keep its democratic institutions, a set of sound policies, and an entrepreneurial attitude by its people that allowed us — even in hard times — to keep moving forward,” he said. “Through hard work, sacrifice, a strong determination and the heroism of our armed forces, we were able to overcome this.”

Yet Pinzón — whose family’s legacy of military service spans more than 120 years — has never lost his enduring love of the Colombian Armed Forces.

“Even as I’m sitting here in Washington, I keep thinking about our soldiers and policemen,” he says. “And the more I think about them, the more I respect them and am thankful for what they did. No matter what, I will always be on their side.”

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