“Bullets wrote our past. Education, our future.”
That is the inscription on the pen used on Sept. 26 to sign the final peace agreement between the government of Colombia and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The writing instrument was made from a recycled bullet, apt symbolism for sure.
The agreement still must be ratified by the voters in October. That remains a major hurdle, given controversy over the deal and unpopularity of President Juan Manuel Santos. Another major radical group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has indicated willingness to cooperate in the peace process — for now.
During the past half century, almost a quarter of a million people are estimated to have been killed, and five million displaced, as a result of the brutal warfare. Now, after complex and painful negotiations, both sides have reached agreement to end the fighting.
The term FARC is an acronym for the Spanish name of the powerful rebel army, known in English as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The movement has found inspiration and effective recruitment through communist ideology. At the same time, the FARC is rightly notorious for enormous illegal drugs dealing.
Officials from the United Nations were present for the signing, along with representatives of Cuba, El Salvador, Mexico, Uruguay and the United States. Cuba has played a significant role long-term in brokering these negotiations. That is important not only in symbolic terms, but as a direct reflection of the substantial real strategic changes over the past quarter century.
Soon after the remarkable success in early 1959 of the revolutionary forces led by Fidel Castro, Cuba became rightly viewed as a force fomenting and supporting communist subversion throughout the Western Hemisphere. That commitment survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, a close ally and sponsor of Castro’s Cuba, and has only faded in recent years. President Barack Obama’s March visit to Cuba, the first since President Calvin Coolidge, represented economic opening. However, in political terms Cuba remains a brutal and repressive dictatorship.
Early in this century, the FARC seemed to be gaining momentum. The evolving conflict resembled the first years of the United States’ long and costly military involvement in Vietnam. More and more civilian and uniformed advisers were being sent, along with a steadily growing array of helicopters, arms and ammunition, and other materiel.
The administration of President George W. Bush significantly expanded aid which began in the Clinton administration, but also tried to minimize media attention. This effort was eerily reminiscent of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, which endeavored before 1965 to deflect Vietnam from the news even as U.S. involvement increased. Then, violence in Colombia began to decline, in great contrast to the evolution of the war in Southeast Asia.
The long war in Colombia made the nation an inviting place for international criminals. In November 2011, Viktor Bout, the “Merchant of Death,” was convicted and imprisoned. A Soviet army veteran, he became enormously rich dealing weapons and drugs on a global scale. Colombia was a major profit center. Drug Enforcement Administration agents posing as Colombia rebels arrested him.
Also in 2011, the U.S. Congress ratified free trade agreements with Colombia along with Panama and South Korea. The Colombia agreement may result in positive regional cooperation. The Summit of the Americas, begun in 1994, is held every three to four years. The Organization of American States, formed in 1948, is one of the world’s oldest regional organizations.
Cooperation helps undercut destructive walls.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.