A Prescient View of Colombia’s Path to Peace

A REVIEW BY PEDRO REINA-PÉREZ

Construcción de paz en Colombia
Edited by Angelika Rettberg
Bogotá: Universidad de los Andes, 2012, 512 pages

On June 15, 2014, Colombians reelected President Juan Manuel Santos for a second term by a six-point margin in one of the most hotly contested elections in recent years. The 2014 presidential election was a de-facto referendum on the country’s peace endeavor. Colombians went to the polls to choose between one man who would preside over the peace process and another who would disrupt it. It was an important inflection in the direction of a negotiated settlement in a history marked by mistrust.

Santos, who had won the earlier 2010 election as a political heir to former President Álvaro Uribe, changed his original hawkish stance once he took office. Once in power, Santos, who as Uribe’s defense minister oversaw the secret operation that freed politician Ingrid Betancourt, distanced himself from the previous policies and began a series of moves aimed at starting the long road to negotiations. In 2012, he announced that his government was opening negotiations with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) to end the armed conflict that had badly wounded his country for more than half a century. Santos was not the first Colombian president persuaded to explore this option, but he was the boldest. 

Construcción de paz en Colombia is a prescient book published just as President Santos, a former defense minister in Uribe’s government, began his first term in office and was thought to favor a continuation of a military strategy to defeat the FARC. When he announced his plans for dialogue, Colombians had reason to be skeptical because of previous failures in reaching accords with the FARC. Former President Uribe felt betrayed, and made it his one and only objective to attack Santos and his government by accusing them of undermining the rule of law, by dealing with criminals. Obviously, these events and its consequences are not contemplated in the book.

The book came out just around the time Santos first met with the FARC in a secret round of meetings in Oslo, Norway, to set groundrules for the process to follow. The governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Chile pledged to accompany the process to lend it credibility. No truce or cease-fire agreements were previously agreed between the parties, as they sat face to face for the first time in the fall of 2012 in Havana. 

Construcción de paz en Colombia is an ambitious and rigorous attempt to map theoretical and methodological approaches to the construction of peace in Colombia in sixteen essays by Colombian sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, lawyers, economists and diplomats. They expound the basic theories for the construction of peace, and present the necessary terms to build a common language. The authors draw on recent precedents such as those of South Africa, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Argentina to illuminate how past experiences in resolving political conflicts can shed light onto a prospective negotiation for peace in Colombia, as well as the subsequent reconstruction of institutions, promotion of economic development and renovation of public trust. 

The book’s relevance as an introduction to the recent history of violence and guerrilla warfare in Colombia cannot be overstated. It is coherent, well written and accessible to readers without previous knowledge of the country or the subject. 

The book’s five sections span a wide range of topics: a theoretical framework for constructing peace in Colombia; justice, memory, reparation and reconciliation; economy, development and the private sector; arms, demobilization and the Armed Forces; and contextual factors and construction of peace.

The volume is not a how-to guide to a quick solution but rather a thorough assessment of possibilities to frame and define the very concept of peace, an elusive objective indeed, given the competing notions held by different groups. It offers a panoramic view of the subject, as well as a general sociological landscape of an elusive yet powerful topic. Rettberg, herself a political scientist, does a splendid job in laying down the fundamental ideas in the opening essay entitled “Construction of Peace in Colombia: Context and Balance.” She offers the reader a fundamental explanation of the complexities involved in defining a framework that is proven, concrete and effective in achieving results. 

She begins by presenting the reader with a list of components used by 25 international institutions and agencies to deal with the construction of peace. They encompass violence reduction or elimination, infrastructure reconstruction, political transition, economic development, social reforms, rule of law, strengthening of civil society and humanitarian action. The author reviews recent precedents in countries such as Sudan that have dealt with similar internal conflicts, summarizing Colombia’s recent attempts to achieve a peaceful solution to its war. This includes a list of all 21 state and international agencies involved with peace efforts in the country, beginning with the Organización Internacional para las Migraciones (1956), and ending with the Área de Memoria Histórica de la Comisión Nacional de Reparación y Reconciliación (2007), as well as the 26 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) doing similar work. She also makes an important distinction between peace and security, two terms that are intimately related but are very different in practice. She warns that peace efforts, if not defended, may be hijacked by partisan groups seeking to exploit them to their own political benefit.

Transitional justice and economic development also occupy an important part of the book. Colombia offers a special set of political and historical circumstances that distinguish it from other experiences in Latin America. First and foremost, the war between the government and the FARC is ongoing, which means that any discussion of prospective arrangements is contingent upon the cessation of hostilities. Javier Ciurlizza, program director for Latin America of the International Crisis Group, defines transitional justice as the interaction of measures created to redress massive human rights violations, recognizing victim’s rights to truth, justice, reparations and reforms for the prevention of said abuses. Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and Guatemala offer important models in general, but the Colombian reality itself will require imagination and discipline to balance a strong state that guarantees security and human rights while preserving democratic institutions. He warns that the public’s need to know the truth cannot mean impunity for those who engaged in violence.

Rettberg stresses the need to develop empirical tools to measure outcomes as a way to assess effectiveness and real progress. In addition, she warns of the need to educate beyond the establishment to reach the general public and give it ownership of the process. Without a complete understanding of the implications and risks, she argues, there can be no lasting peace for all Colombians. 

Pedro Reina Pérez, a historian, journalist and blogger specializing in contemporary Spanish Caribbean history. was the 2013-14 DRCLAS Wilbur Marvin Visiting Scholar. He is a professor of Humanities and Cultural Agency and Administration at the University of Puerto Rico. Among his books and edited volumes are Poeta del Paisaje (2013), El Arco Prodigioso (2009) and La Semilla Que Sembramos (2003). 

See also: Colombia, Book Talk