Colombia may still be far from its final destination, but the progress of the past 20 years has been extraordinary. The surrender and conversion to democracy of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) may have left a bad taste in people's mouths, but it's hard to envisage any other route for Colombia in beginning the healing process after so many years of war. There's still an enormous distance to go, but arguably Colombia is finally on a path to long-term peace.
A Controversial Deal
When Harvard-educated President Juan Manuel Santos began overseeing highly controversial negotiations with representatives of the FARC rebels in Havana in 2012, Colombian society was simultaneously floored and outraged. Santos, who had defined himself in the 2010 election campaign as passionately anti-FARC, was heavily criticized for the bold move, not least by his mentor and predecessor, Álvaro Uribe.
Santos just managed to scrape in a second term in the polarized 2014 presidential election, which was essentially a referendum on whether the peace talks should continue or not. With something resembling a mandate, Santos continued the negotiations, but in 2016 the final agreement was rejected by the narrowest of margins in a referendum: 50.2% against versus 49.8% in favor.
The FARC Enters the Mainstream
Santos returned to the negotiating table and made some 50 amendments to the agreement that would allow it to be passed directly by Congress. This was duly done so on 30 November 2016, when both the Congress and the Senate approved the bill unanimously. Earlier the same year, Santos had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the deal, an act that he later suggested had helped Congress pass the agreement following the catastrophic referendum result that had put the entire peace process in danger. The president later donated the US$1 million prize money to the victims of the FARC.
Under the terms of the agreement, the FARC gave up their weapons, a process they completed in August 2017. In return – and the biggest issue most people had with the agreement – the FARC leaders entered politics and formed a political party under the same name. Most members of the FARC were granted amnesty by the agreement, and it has announced intentions to field candidates for Congress and to transform itself into a respectable political party, much to the horror of its hundreds of thousands of surviving victims.
A Divided Nation
Colombia remains divided not only about the peace agreements, but on many other issues too. Corruption and poverty are endemic throughout society and few see any way to reduce either. In 2017 an incredible 28% of Colombians were living beneath the poverty line.
In 2018, Centro Democrático candidate Iván Duque Marquéz was sworn in as president, presenting the first big test of the peace agreement. By October 2018, no definitive decision had been made by Duque with regards to continuing peace talks with the FARC and the Marxist ELN rebels, though the ELN had been urged to release all hostages as a precondition for continuing the talks, and Duque rejected Venezuela as one of the guarantors of future peace talks.
Other complex issues facing Colombia today are the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans trying to escape food shortages and government crackdowns across the border, and tense relations with Maduro, the president of Venezuela.
Colombian exports remain problematic, with the country producing an estimated 1400 tonnes of cocaine in 2017 – a huge rise over recent years and another blemish on the country's international reputation.
A Country on the Rise
Colombia has largely overcome the instability and violence that has blighted it since the mid-20th century, and is now one of the most dynamic and fast-growing economies in Latin America. Having avoided the recessions that have hit many Latin American countries in recent years, and also due in part to the high price of its main natural resources, oil and coal, Colombia looks set to continue its economic growth at an impressive pace in the near future.
While it's undeniable that for many rural poor life has yet to improve, Colombia today is racing ahead to become one of the hottest, most exciting destinations on the continent, and tourism is playing an increasingly large role in that. Colombian confidence hasn't been as high in living memory.
The journey has been an arduous one, of course, and Colombia remains a nation beset by the demons of its past: memories of the FARC insurgency, paramilitary groups and violent drug cartels are never far from the minds of locals. But as the healing process begins and the Colombian government remains committed to ensuring long-term peace, there has never been such an occasion for optimism in the country's history.