Colombia: Will the Peace Last?

“It’s a miracle!”

That’s how one citizen of Colombia described the newly signed peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

It was just one expression of the feelings of euphoria that swept much of the war-weary country last Thursday when the peace agreement was signed. People were dancing in the streets. After 52 years of fighting, 220,000 killed and unknown numbers of persons having disappeared, and several millions made homeless, peace seems a condition transcending nature.

The euphoria was the result of the outcome of four years of grueling negotiations between implacable enemies. This week the erstwhile enemies finally stood together in Havana, the site of the talks, for a ceremony in the presence of Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, and five Latin American presidents, all there to bear witness to the reality of the new order.

Is it conceivable that after five interminable decades of inflicting and absorbing torture, these people can work together to rebuild the country?

FARC leader Carlos Antonio Lozada answered the question when he said in an interview this week:

“We repent everything, not just the war but things that we have done in life. But beyond my personal case, one has to put this into political context. Personally, yes of course, there are always things to repent. We would like to rewind the movie, not to have been part of those situations.”

A remarkable post-war statement. When before has a leftwing revolutionary repented the bloodbath his men perpetrated in the name of social justice?

Lozada’s is likely to be only the first of many such statements of remorse. The peace framework calls for a special tribunal that will hear confessions of atrocities committed during the war by both sides, akin to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.

Doubts have already been raised about whether the victims will be placated by verbal confessions instead of prison terms for perpetrators. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos’s predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, denounced the agreement, saying on Thursday that “peace has been injured.” Uribe has launched a campaign of “civil resistance” against the agreement, which he says hands Colombia over to the FARC and “Castro-chavismo.

“Loathing for the FARC runs deep in Colombia,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “It’s been a long and wearing process, and anyone who thinks this is going to be smooth is naive.”

Yet the South African precedent gives reason for hope. Thousands of confessions were given — in detail — of the grisliest of crimes committed during the apartheid regime by state police, and by the rebels as well. Many were convinced that the process would not satisfy the aggrieved, and that reconciliation was a dream. But the process in fact reached a peaceful conclusion; in the end not a single act of revenge was recorded.

It is not pure fantasy to think that Colombia could emulate the example. “We were struck that none of the victims who came to Havana asked for revenge,” noted one of the negotiators. “They all asked us to continue this discussion at the table and not to stand up from it until we finished what we came here to do — which was, essentially, to make a peace agreement.”

Besides the question of overcoming emotions, the practical challenges implementing the agreement are also formidable.

The terms of the disarmament were carefully worked out. The FARC must lay down its weapons within 180 days in 23 designated “normalization zones.” The United Nations personnel charged with collecting the weapons and monitoring the process are already arriving.

But the U.N. can only monitor and mediate; it cannot guarantee. Inevitably, there will be suspicions that not all the rebels are disarming, and that some have gone underground to continue kidnapping, shooting and bombing. On the other hand, once disarmed, the rebels become vulnerable to their enemies, who have not all gone away either. Integration of the much feared and hated FARC into the political process will likewise be fraught with tension.

Then too, there is the problem that while two parties to the conflict have made peace, a third major party hasn’t. That’s the ELN, Colombia’s second-largest insurgent group. On March 30, the ELN signed a framework agreement in Caracas to formally open peace talks, but these talks have yet to begin. Failure to work things out with the ELN and other (smaller) armed groups could easily wreck the general peace.

And there is the matter of governance, something the government has failed to provide for all these decades. In the peace agreement, Santos promised agrarian reform measures and improvement in the delivery of basic services, which, if they come to pass, would be a novelty in Colombia.

The gruesome tangle of drug trading and all manner of other crime and corruption in the border regions will continue to pose a threat to any hope for a civilized society for years to come. And the vacuum created by the disarmament of FARC could well be filled by violent players on the right or the left, or both, if the government does not step in quickly and efficiently.

The current mood in Colombia is euphoric. But it must be tempered by a realization that the peace agreement will not be all dancing in the streets, and that many years of the hard work of healing lie ahead.