As Colombians head to polls, peace is still a work in progress

Why We Wrote This

Voters want to move Colombia ahead after decades of conflict. But that also means looking back at its peace deal and choosing between two visions for how to implement it before violence flares again.

Fernando Vergara/AP
Supporters of Ivan Duque, presidential candidate for the Democratic Center party, wave a Colombian flag during a campaign rally in Soacha, outside Bogotá, last month. Colombians will hold runoff presidential elections June 17.

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Voters face a stark choice at Colombia’s polls on Sunday as they pick the next president. Their options: a conservative senator backed by business elite, or a leftist former mayor who was a guerrilla fighter in the 1980s. They bring very different approaches to Colombia’s most urgent problems, but perhaps the most pressing is the country’s two-year-old peace deal. The agreement ended more than five decades of fighting against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, but peace is still shaky – and how the controversial deal is implemented could either cement it or leave it weaker. Key are economic and social programs to help people in FARC-affected areas transition to legal ways of making a living, instead of growing coca. “We hope that the next president understands this special moment that Colombia is going through,” says Marcos Martinez, a former FARC special forces commander who now helps run employment programs for his comrades at a transition camp in northern Colombia. “The world is evolving, and Colombia should not be stuck in war mode.”

Outside a camp for former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Wilfran Martinez runs a couple of organic farms, bursting with emerald green banana trees.

The former rebel enjoys his new lifestyle, away from mosquito-infested jungles where he fought for almost ten years.

And he’s had some success in his new endeavor. Recently his farm, which is a transitional program for demobilized FARC members, signed a contract to sell its tomatoes, peppers, and other crops to 22 local schools.

But the former fighters have still not received a promised plot of land from the Colombian government – key to their business plan and post-war future. Mr. Martinez worries that this weekend’s run-off presidential election could make it even harder to get help moving forward.

“We wouldn't be surprised if the next government breaks some of the promises that have been made to us,” Martinez says. “So far we’ve had a lot of problems getting the current government to keep its word.”

Colombia will elect a new president on Sunday, and voters are faced with two starkly different choices. Ivan Duque, a conservative senator who is backed by Colombia’s business elite, is running against Gustavo Petro, a leftist former mayor of Bogota who was a guerrilla fighter in the 1980s.

They have very different ideas on how to deal with Colombia’s most urgent problems, from its sagging health system to the large gap between rich and poor. But perhaps most pressing are their conflicting perspectives on how to implement a two-year-old landmark agreement, which ended more than five decades of violence with FARC rebels, in a way that keeps the shaky peace.

Analysts say that the winner will have to make adjustments, but ensure that progress continues where the deal already seems to be working – like Martinez’s farming project in the northern province of La Guajira.

“Implementing the accords is not just about giving the FARC what has been promised to them,” says Ariel Avila, a security analyst at the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, a Colombian think tank.

“We need the next government to implement policies that will stop another outbreak of violence from occurring in remote areas.”

Making a legal living

Research conducted by Mr. Avila’s foundation shows that the number of kidnappings, landmine victims, and internally displaced people in Colombia has fallen steadily since the peace deal was signed by President Juan Manuel Santos in 2016.

But Avila says that in some areas of the country, particularly those under former FARC control, homicide rates are rising as criminal groups, renegade FARC factions, and the smaller ELN guerrilla group try to take over “illegal economies,” like coca plantations, abandoned by the FARC. The guerrillas taxed the crop for years to finance their insurgency.

Colombia’s next president will have to increase law enforcement in these troubled areas, while deploying economic and social programs that help locals transition to legal ways of making a living, Avila says. The peace deal includes support for these types of programs.

“Implementing the peace deal also means complying with what has been promised to [farming] communities,” Avila says. “And that includes things like building roads for farmers to get their produce to markets.”

Candidates Mr. Petro and Mr. Duque have both said that they want to increase investment in remote areas of the countryside so that violence doesn’t return. But while Petro favors agricultural projects, spurred by a land reform program in which the government would purchase land for impoverished peasants, Duque focuses on boosting agro-industry to create more jobs, and providing incentives for oil and mining companies.

Juan Carlos Garzon, a researcher at Colombia’s Ideas for Peace Foundation, says that the next president will have to revisit an ongoing government project helping coca growers transition to legal crops.  

The project – known as PNIS – has been relatively quick at signing contracts with farmers who grow coca, in which they agree to eradicate their crops in exchange for a monthly subsidy.

But it has been notoriously slow at helping farmers plan what they will grow next, and where they will sell it. Only 10 percent of the 71,000 families who have joined the program so far have received technical assistance.

“That kind of assistance is what allows you to make these eradication efforts sustainable over time,” Mr. Garzon says, noting that the current program participants are on “very shaky footing.”

Trying to cut back coca

Colombia’s coca crop has been rising quickly, according to US government estimates, growing from roughly 200,000 acres in 2013 to 460,000 acres in 2016. Cocaine production tripled between 2012 and 2016.

Duque has proposed tackling the problem by resuming the aerial fumigation of coca crops, a tactic that was stopped in Colombia three years ago because of its potentially negative health consequences.

But while the threat of fumigation might encourage some farmers to stick to voluntary eradication initiatives, it could also lead to more confrontation between farming communities and the Colombian government.

“Coca farmers may find themselves in a position where they have to defend their livelihood,” says Sergio Guzman, an analyst in Bogota for the international consulting group Control Risks. “And that may increase social unrest in the form of strikes, road blocks, or even violent uprisings.”

Duque is currently favored by polls to win the election. Some of that popularity has come from the very changes he proposes to make to the peace deal, such as making it harder for FARC leaders who committed war crimes to participate in formal politics. Under the current deal, FARC is guaranteed 10 seats in Congress, an important incentive for the group when it participated in peace negotiations.

Though the FARC’s recognized political party has avoided campaigning for Petro, they are wary of Duque. He’s considered a protégé of former President Alvaro Uribe, one of the most outspoken critics of signing a peace deal with the FARC.

“We hope that the next president understands this special moment that Colombia is going through,” says Marcos Martinez, a former FARC special forces commander who now helps run employment programs for his comrades at a transition camp in northern Colombia. “The world is evolving and Colombia should not be stuck in war mode.”

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