Guzmán: Colombia’s forgotten history of peace

By Sergio Guzman April 26, 2019

Colombians negotiated a landmark peace agreement that slowly crumbled as the State was unable to live up to its promise of economic development, democratization, truth, and reconciliation. Opponents of the peace agreement were so enraged by what they considered were government capitulations to criminals that when they eventually took power, they managed to roll back key provisions in the agreement, all but guaranteeing its demise and a return to conflict. This does not reference current events, instead, it is carefully narrated in Robert Karl’s book “Forgotten Peace: Reform, Violence, and the Making of Contemporary Colombia” on the failed implementation of the 1957 agreement to restore democracy in Colombia.   

It may sound counter-intuitive but we have been here before. Colombia has already negotiated an unprecedented and internationally lauded peace agreement between ardent adversaries who had committed gross atrocities towards one another. While the agreement held, there were a number of government initiatives meant to restore rural economies through agricultural and land reform programs, re-organize the political establishment at the local and national levels, and put in place a commission to study the core causes of the conflict, but then it failed.

In spite of the efforts of liberal Alberto Lleras Camargo to lead a bipartisan effort to move the country forward by establishing a power-sharing bargain with the conservative party, members of that party – in particular Guillermo León Valencia (grandfather of Democratic Center senator Paloma Valencia) – had many reservations about the implementation of the peace agreement and instead promoted a hardline approach. The agreement was short-lived because the conservative government made sure not to follow through on the government’s promises.

If this all sounds too familiar it is because we are currently in the process of rewriting a similar episode of Colombian history. Robert Karl’s book “Forgotten Peace” is a stark warning of the risks of the government not following through on its word and the very probable return to conflict it may entail. Before our eyes, the peace agreement with the FARC is being taken apart piece by piece by its opponents. Are they right that the transitional justice chapter of the agreement is too lenient with war criminals? Perhaps. Are they justified in not wanting to give their enemies an opening in conflict? Maybe. But undoing this peace agreement will have lasting consequences for the future of the country. What is most concerning of all is the new cycle of violence that dismissing the current framework for peace – imperfect as it may be – could be responsible in creating, as the implementation hangs by a thread and all the elements for conflict are alive and well in Colombia.  

The peace agreement that transitioned Colombia from a dictatorship to a flawed democracy was an imperfect one. It granted amnesty to war criminals (back then the Treaty of Rome was not a thing) allowing many left-wing bandoleros and right-wing landowners to literally get away with murder – it opted for a strategy to rehabilitate criminals rather than punish them. In doing so, the government provided guaranteed financing to former warlords in order to transition them from conflict into agricultural activities.  It invested government funds in radio stations to guarantee communications, mounted police to be able to provide security, and named new judges to strengthen the rule of law. It also granted political rights to both Liberals and Conservatives who swapped the presidency for 16 years, between 1958 – 1974, which was at the time innovative but also deeply undemocratic.

The government of Lleras Camargo also set up an independent Peace Commission to investigate the causes of the violence throughout the country, especially to understand the origins of the fratricide conflict and to offer mediation between armed groups. With an improvised agenda and no working framework for post-conflict and truth commissions – as there is a state of the art today – the commission did the best it could with what it had. The commission produced no formal report but instead presented its findings to the president and the cabinet for them to implement practical solutions.

Clearly, not everyone was happy with the resulting “Paz Criolla”. In 1959, conservative senator Alvaro Gomez (who would later become one of the chief architects of the 1991 constitution) argued how it was unfathomable for “monstrous criminals” to receive government assistance. Members of the church were highly critical of the book that was published by one of the peace commissioners documenting threats to exact an ecclesiastical punishment for what they considered a wrongful interpretation of history. Finally, when it became the turn for the conservatives to preside over the country Guillermo León Valencia – the man selected by the party to fulfill this duty – proved to be disastrous for the peace, not least because of his disdain for the agreement as well as his poor managerial abilities.

Reading the book, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels with our current juncture: an imperfect peace agreement, the perception of impunity and unfairness in the implementation of the agreement, and the reticence of the subsequent administrations to follow through on commitments made by their predecessors. It was an incredible opportunity to move forward, unfortunately, short-term political judgment got in the way. History behaves in strange ways, coincidentally, the protagonists of today story are very much the same as they were in the 60s – often people belonging to the same families. It is important for them to realize that they will be judged in the eyes of history, much in the same vein in which we are currently observing their ancestors.  J

The book gives a detailed look to the efforts made by key stakeholders including politicians, church officials, and sociologists during the 60s and 70s to lead a democratic transition, promote rural development, and understand the root causes of conflict. Their efforts were short-lived, and the inability of politicians at the time to embrace an imperfect agreement paved the way for the conflict that was to follow.   

There is a much longer story than what I have just told you – with nuance, source documents, and annotations – which is contained in Prof. Karl’s brilliant book. I would be remiss not to recommend the readers of this column to buy the book, which has been the source of equal parts joy and frustration for me. Joy for discovering a chapter in Colombian history often overlooked. Frustration to know that we were close to turning an important page and we blew it – recognizing that we are in a similar moment today.

Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on twitter @serguzes and @ColombiaRisk

This opinion column is intended as a space to discuss some of the most pressing issues faced by Colombia and the region in these uncertain times. All opinions and content are solely the opinion of the author and do not represent the viewpoints of The Bogotá Post.