This week marks the start of what may become a permanent cease-fire in the longest-running insurgency in Latin America. After 52 years of bloodshed, the government of Colombia and leftist guerrillas have reached a peace agreement following four years of negotiation.
A lasting peace would be a landmark achievement for Colombia. But no one should overlook the larger historical significance:
A peace pact signals the end of a painful and destructive era for the entire region.
Ironically, if not absurdly, the peace talks were held in Havana under the auspices of the Castro brothers, whose successful overthrow of the Cuban government in 1959 ignited the flame of revolution throughout Latin America for most of the remainder of the 20th century.
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Thanks to Fidel and brother Raúl, his defense minister and closest confidante, as well as his obedient hatchet man, Colombia and virtually every other country in Central and South America, as well as scattered outposts like Grenada, became engulfed in revolutionary violence at one time or another after 1959. The Castro brothers did their best to fan the flames.
Conditions in the region made their job easier. Democracy, where it existed, was an imperfect and sometime thing. But communism proved to be no remedy. In time, Latin America’s people came to realize that violent revolution offered little except chaos and misery.
The Cuban “model” guaranteed only unrelieved despotism and economic dependency on the state. In Venezuela, the one major country where a Castro acolyte managed to take power, what was once a thriving democracy has become an economic disaster, mired in political corruption and criminal violence.
With the demise of the Soviet Union, Cuba was left without the means to support revolution throughout the region, and suddenly the flame died out. Colombia became a major exception because the Castro-backed FARC guerrillas turned to narcotics trafficking to finance their war.
But in doing so they surrendered whatever political claim they may once have had to fight on behalf of Colombia’s downtrodden. It became patently obvious long ago that Colombia’s guerrillas were drug criminals, paying lip service to democracy while fighting against a popular, increasingly confident government they could not defeat.
One hurdle remains, however, and it could be formidable. President Juan Manuel Santos, the architect of the peace strategy and a former defense minister, must persuade Colombians to approve the deal in a referendum this fall and assure them that it will achieve both peace and justice.
Some polls say most Colombians will vote Yes. But respected former President Álvaro Uribe, an outspoken foe of the insurgents, is leading a campaign against approval based largely on the promised amnesty for guerrillas that he claims should be treated as war criminals.
The agreement also sets aside seats in Congress for ex-guerrilla fighters. Some fear they will use illicit profits from narcotics trafficking to win political control of Colombia.
The war has claimed 220,000 lives and displaced millions. No one who has not lived in Colombia during the past half-century can presume to tell Colombians how they should vote. Either choice carries risk. But surely they must consider what is best for Colombia’s future, and what should be consigned to the country’s painful history.