There’s a photo of photos, held up on posters glued with white carnations—photos of faces, printed in grainy black and white, all soldiers. These hundreds of soldiers float from the hands of their relatives, a sea of people wearing white. Those soldiers have been missing, for seven, ten, twenty years.
Another sea of people, this time wearing their national colors of yellow, blue and red, cheered on a triumphant James Rodriguez, the 23-year-old top scorer and leader of an underdog football team, called Los Cafeteros for Colombia’s world famous coffee production. Rodriguez led Colombia to the quarterfinals of the World Cup, where they were defeated by Brazil. A Buzzfeed article, “How To Dance As Awesomely As The Colombian Soccer Team,” featured GIFs of the team salsa dancing after scoring a goal. Los Cafeteros captured the spirit of the world’s soccer fans.
Colombia is a nation of contradictions. The country’s flag has a yellow stripe for gold, a blue stripe for the seas that surround it, and a red stripe—for blood. Colombia is no longer derisively known as drug lord Pablo Escobar’s home address, but it remains gripped by a decades-long civil war. Growing at almost seven percent in 2014 while Latin America flagged at less than two percent as a whole, this nation of coffee and emeralds is also the world’s largest cocaine producer. While Colombia’s politicians lead negotiations on the post-2015 UN development goals, many policemen and soldiers remain hostages, held deep within the jungles, taken during the civil war that has persisted for nearly half a century.
Now Colombia’s leaders are attempting to eliminate the conflict that has torn the country apart by negotiating a settlement for peace. Colombian voters remember decades of conflict, and scattered, unsuccessful attempts to resolve it, notably under President Andres Pastrana Arango in 1998. If peace can be achieved, Colombia has demonstrated its potential to race ahead, to develop exponentially and lead in international forums. But first, Latin America’s longest running war, one that has caused cities to decay into shacks, thousands to suffer limb amputation from landmines, and hundreds of thousands to die, must end.
Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos can often be found in Havana, Cuba, negotiating with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest armed guerilla movement. The FARC has held unofficial control over sectors of the country since 1966, and only ten years ago, ruled a third of the country. While the FARC claims to be a Marxist-Leninist force defending Colombia’s rural peasants from oppressive landholders, it has links to funding from the lucrative drug trade. Colombia reels from war between the FARC, right-wing paramilitary groups and the army, all of which have been accused of intimidation, violence, and human rights violations. Santos wants to end the conflict through negotiation, but the idea of compromise is difficult to accept for relatives of those killed and captured. The peace process does not include the numerous paramilitary groups, or directly address the accusations of retaliatory behavior leveled at the government.
Though the stakes involved in the process threaten to divide the country further, Santos’s plan does have some optimists on its side. Yale World Fellow Paula Moreno, former Colombian Minister of Culture and president of Manos Visibles, a nongovernment group that seeks to empower urban youth and women, believes that Colombians still possess an indefatigable hope for peace. “Trying to achieve a peace process is something that we must do, that we must try as much as is needed.” Mauricio Rodríguez, a mediator in the peace talks and a former Colombian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, noted in a 2014 interview with The Guardian that more than 250,000 people have died in the conflict, and more than five million have been displaced: “How can we just tear up the peace process when we are so close, after all these years of killing?”
But Semana, a leading Colombian magazine, recently declared that “el pesimismo se mantuvo estatico,” or “pessimism remained unchanged.” In February 2014, prior to Santos’s reelection, the percentage of Colombians sure that the peace talks would fail rose in number from 41 to 57 percent. A great majority of Colombians polled by Semana did not care about success or failure, instead hoping to scrap peace talks entirely and see all combatants in jail. About 60 percent wished to see FARC fighters, demilitarized or not, imprisoned, and two-thirds did not support their participation in politics.
In a country where five million people have seen their houses burned and their land seized, where everyone knows someone who’s been held at gunpoint, seen a bombing, or been kept captive in the jungle for years, peace is hard to negotiate, or even to talk about. Colombians marched in 2008 through the streets of Bogota, chanting “No mas FARC,” or “no more FARC,” but the question of how to demobilize the group is not so easy to unify around.
Yet, peace is being talked about. Negotiations on the current five-point draft accord began in 2012 with the help of Cuba, Venezuela, Chile and Norway. The accord’s second and most controversial point would include the FARC in political participation—allowing the group to attempt to gain votes within the electoral system, rather than control small pockets of the country through means that range from local sympathy to landmines. Santos would bring the FARC into mainstream Colombian politics as a party.
The fifth point would be the most difficult to carry out. Known as DDR, or “demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration,” the language calls for the return of demilitarized FARC fighters to society. In recent years, combatants who had agreed to lay down their arms have pleaded that they were soon abandoned—denied access to job training or education, alienated from their communities, left by the government without means or sympathy—even though they had chosen to end their role in the violence.
President Alvaro Uribe, who held office in-between the administrations of two peace-seeking presidents, Pastrana and Santos, pushed the FARC by force farther into the jungles, sometimes even over the border into Ecuador. Under his leadership from 2002 to 2010, numerous FARC leaders were killed, and many high profile hostages were released. Uribe chose to rise above the fray in military helicopters, leaving negotiations by the wayside.
In 1998, his predecessor, President Pastrana attempted to negotiate peace, granting the FARC a demilitarized zone the size of Switzerland. But the government was accused of allowing paramilitary groups to continue fighting with impunity against the FARC, and the FARC was accused of rearming and supporting the drug trade from its safe zone. The negotiations stalled and finally ended in 2002. The government then declared a war zone, and a state of emergency after bombings in Bogota killed twenty.
Around this time, my aunt and uncle, born, raised, and working in Colombia left the country. My cousins, now beginning careers in the United States, are products of a thoroughly American education. I myself, born in the U.S. to a Colombian mother, did not return to Colombia for four years, after spending half my childhood visiting my family there. I have a blank, a place where the record skips, between photos of a toddler in the countryside, and then a much taller stranger wearing braces in front of the same ancestral house.
Elisa Martinez, an undergraduate at Yale, born in Colombia, has spent most of her life in the U.S. She remembers suddenly avoiding the countryside around Bogota where her family used to vacation. “It was only when I was much older that my parents told me it was because it had become too dangerous to drive along those highways because of La FARC’s presence in regions nearby.”
But many Colombians, including my family, have returned to the country. The government lauds safer conditions, attributing reduced violence to Uribe’s hardline policies. In 2008’s Operacion Jaque, the Colombian army rescued Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate who had been held in the jungle for six years, along with other high profile captives. I remember following the rescue on television, in Tunja, hearing cheering behind the news anchor and in the streets below my grandmother’s windows. As the hostages came home, the country believed, for the first time in decades, that change was coming. The operation inspired its own television mini-series, so people could relive it.
During Uribe’s presidency, rebel combatant numbers fell from 25,000 to 7,000. In 2012, Santos, who was Uribe’s Minister of Defense, completely reversed the latter’s plan of attack. As the FARC declared a two-month ceasefire, peace talks began. In late 2014, Santos expected to sign a peace treaty by the end of the year.
Santos finished second in the first round of voting during his reelection campaign. He ran a narrow campaign, stating that his “main reason to seek re-election [was] the possibility of ending a conflict.” He won in the second round—the day after Colombia won a World Cup match, 3-0 against Greece. When asked if James won the election for Santos, Nestor Osorio, Colombia’s current ambassador to the U.K., would only smile before skirting around the (Courtes issue. Though Colombians have mobilized as a nation, marching in the streets for an end to the conflict, the lack of enthusiasm among voters suggests that not all believe in Santos’s ability to achieve peace through dialogue.
If Santos did sign a peace agreement the symbolic end alone would boost Colombia’s already skyrocketing importance on the world stage. “Colombia—in spite of everything—has achieved unprecedented progress over the last years on matters ranging from security and fighting poverty, to economic performance,” Santos told the U.N.’s General Assembly in 2013: “Imagine how much more we could do without it [the civil war]!”
When we spoke, Amb. Osorio highlighted the evolution of Colombia’s political priorities. Once focused almost entirely on internal defense, combating the proliferation of drug trafficking and guerilla activity in the 80’s and 90’s, Colombia recently served as president of the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council, or ECOSOC. Just as James has risen to become a star in the soccer world, Santos, in Osorio’s opinion, has bolstered his international reputation by expanding Colombia’s participation at the highest levels of global discussions on poverty, health, and development issues.
At the same time, Colombia has become, in Osorio’s words, “an outwards economy,” joining the Pacific Alliance trade bloc. It includes Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, bringing in more trade and more tourism and together racing ahead of Brazil—in the end, Colombia may get its revenge for that World Cup elimination in dollars. In all of Latin America, Colombia is growing the fastest. It has brought down the unemployment rate for 47 months in a row—all while dealing with the conflict. Colombia is part of a new regional configuration of power, and its economic weight now outstrips oil-rich Venezuela and debt-ridden Argentina.
But the peace process, according to Osorio, “is key to tourism and to agricultural productivity—industries that rely on two avenues, security and economic development, coming together. The moment Colombia manages to get rid of the conflict, we will have a great capacity… with its exceptional resources, it’s more than emerging market.”
Moreno agreed that the peace process would change the international image of Colombia, but she noted that the aftermath of any deal will remain complex, “Peace is the dream come true, but in the peace process, we are expecting the social forces to just organize themselves,” she told me. “We need to organize them.” She fears the new forms of conflict that may persist beyond the label of “war,” a culture of violence remaining unchanged. The street gang intimidation and extortion that plagues many of Colom- bia’s cities, an outgrowth of poverty once closely linked to spillover from civil conflict, is independent of the war now. Even as many industries in Colombia stand to benefit from increased access to global markets, the economic prospects of individual towns, small business owners, and laborers will not be solved by a peace agreement alone.
In an August interview with Slate, Santos was presented with a dilemma: a FARC leader will not lay down his arms, knowing he will go to jail, yet a Colombian must see him go there, because the FARC killed his father. The interviewer asked the president what he would do with that leader, returning Santos to the firestorm that led to his near-defeat in July’s presidential elections.
“I cannot give you that answer,” Santos responded. “I have to give this answer to people at the negotiating table.”
Santos told Slate he intended to present Colombia with “the whole package” of costs and benefits associated with a peace agreement. “People will go for the benefits,” he concluded.
Martinez is more cautious. “I think the key issue now is how deep and old the wounds are on both sides,” she said. “For a lot of Colombians, just forgiving the members of La FARC and allowing their peaceful assimilation into society without punishment is a pill too bitter to swallow.”
The government has stated that the accords must be accepted in full, or rejected; all five points must be included in any agreement with the FARC. It will take an extraordinary effort just to achieve an all-or-nothing consensus between the two parties. But if the peace accords are completed, and then put to the people as a referendum, will the positive spirit of Colombia’s global future, embodied in James’s triumphant salsa dancing, inspire them to vote Santos’s way again? Or will they remember the soldiers whose faces are now only honored through photographs?
The day-to-day negotiations fluctuate wildly. In early November 2014, the FARC kidnapped the highest-ranking military officer they had ever seized. In response, Santos suspended the peace process. After the general’s release, Santos promised renewed discussion. The negotiations slide back and forth, as does the country, between pessimism and optimism.
Colombia’s past is woven with a stripe, red for blood—but originally, that stripe symbolized the blood shed in Colombia’s fight for national independence. The flag has two more stripes, yellow and blue, symbolizing the country’s material and natural wealth. Colombia has waterfalls and deserts, ten percent of the world’s biodiversity, intensely loud music, many of the world’s purest emeralds, a festival of pickup truck sized flower displays that halt traffic for days—its own stripes found nowhere else.
Moreno thinks that hope will surmount any tensions over the concessions that government negotiators may need to make. “Since we have suffered so much, I think it will be extremely difficult to say no, if we have the chance. From the emotional part of the country, I don’t think people will say, ‘I don’t want this,’” she explained. “Even if it’s imperfect, [the current peace negotiations are] the chance that we have.”