South Florida Colombians react to possible end of armed conflict in their homeland

Jimena Velez was among South Florida Colombians who reacted to news that peace is close at hand with an end to the armed conflict between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Jimena Velez was among South Florida Colombians who reacted to news that peace is close at hand with an end to the armed conflict between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

South Florida Colombians expressed mixed feelings about the recent news from Havana that the armed conflict in their country may be coming to an end soon.

In interviews on the street and by phone, a dozen Colombians said they were hopeful or skeptical about the possibility of a peace agreement, in the wake of a Havana meeting last week between Colombian President Juan Manual Santos and the commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Timoleón Timoshenko.

Others rejected that possibility entirely, expressing fears that a peace accord could enable the Cuban-backed guerrillas to seize power in Colombia and install a Venezuelan-style government in Bogotá, the Colombian capital.

In Havana, where FARC and Colombian government representatives have been meeting for almost three years, both sides announced on Sept. 23 that they had reached an agreement on a deadline for ending negotiations — March 2016 — and lauded progress on a significant component of a permanent peace pact: an agreement for a so-called transitional justice.

The views expressed by South Florida Colombians reflect to some extent the same viewpoints voiced by many other Colombians interviewed within their country and in other parts of the world.

A little more than one million Hispanics of Colombian ancestry lived in the United States in 2013, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. Of this number, at least 51 percent lived in the southern United States, mostly in Florida, according to the study.

Roughly half of the Colombians interviewed on the street in Miami and Doral were hopeful about the peace process and the other half had serious doubts about it.

“The claim that peace is closer than ever, that's a lie,” said Jesús Yépez, a native of Barranquilla. “President Santos has been manipulated by the guerrillas.”

Yépez said he would feel more confidence in a peace agreement if it had occurred when Alvaro Uribe, perceived as more conservative, was president of Colombia between 2002 and 2010.

“If it had occurred with Uribe, it would be something different,” said Yépez. “But with Santos that will not go anywhere.”

Jimena Vélez, a native of Medellin, said she was hopeful that statements made in Havana on would lead to a peace agreement — but echoing Yépez, she also expressed skepticism.

“All Colombians want it,” Vélez said. “But in truth, wanting it is one thing, while in reality, it may not happen because this president has announced this several times.”

Perhaps the most hopeful opinion came from Roberto Beltrán, a Cali lawyer who spends time in Miami and Colombia, where he has a tour company.

“It definitely will happen,” Beltrán said. “I am confident that it will be achieved. We need it. We want it. We're going to have to swallow a few things, like impunity for some crimes. That will be the cost of peace.”

Moreover, Beltrán said, Colombia will change when peace comes formally.

“For example, I have a tourism company, that takes people to snow-capped mountains, volcanoes, rivers in the jungle, and I'll be able to take my tourists in safety, to a large country, and a very beautiful country,” he said.

Fabio Andrade, a Colombian community leader, originally from Bogotá, was blunt in his rejection of the peace process in Havana.

“I am very worried,” Andrade said. “President Santos, in his eagerness to get a Nobel Peace Prize, is handing over the country to criminals. I think the president is very committed to go against the will of the Colombian people.”

Another Colombian community leader opposed to the peace process said talks could lead to a deal under which Colombia would fall into the hands of the FARC.

“Peace cannot be signed in an agreement with a guerrilla group that is unwilling to surrender their weapons, and only seeks political control,” said Andrés Franco, of Bogotá. “That is the beginning of socialism of the 21st Century in Colombia, which is the same kind now reigning in Venezuela.”

Alfonso Chardy: 305-376-3435, @Alfonso Chardy