Editor’s Note: In our December 19 issue, we published a piece by Jay Nordlinger called “Getting to Peace in Colombia: A controversial year.” This week in his Impromptus, Mr. Nordlinger is expanding upon that piece.
It has been widely noted that 2016 was a strange year, and an “impactful” one (to employ an ugly new word). Among the countries having a significant and eventful year was Colombia. In brief, this is what happened:
The government, headed by President Juan Manuel Santos, consummated a four-year peace process with the FARC. These initials, as you know, constitute the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The government and the FARC announced a peace agreement on August 24. The agreement was then put to a national plebiscite.
Colombians went to the polls on October 2. Everyone expected them to vote for the agreement, overwhelmingly. Instead, they voted against it, narrowly: 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent.
That was a Sunday. The next Friday morning, the Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo announced its Nobel Peace Prize: It would go to Santos, for his efforts. The president said, “I accept the award with great humility and as an assignment to keep working for peace.”
That is a common reaction of new peace laureates. If you’re interested in this subject, consult my Peace, They Say, a history of the prize.
The new laureate and the FARC went back to the negotiating table. They agreed on some 50 modifications to their August agreement. Santos did not risk a new plebiscite. He did not go to the voters again. Instead, he put the agreement before Congress, where he had the votes. On November 30, the congress ratified the agreement.
And Santos was able to go to Oslo with the deed done. The Nobel ceremony took place, as always, on December 10 (anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death).
‐Today is November 9 — the day after the American election. I am in a cab, headed to another part of Bogotá, the Colombian capital, to see Álvaro Uribe. Uribe is a member of the senate here, and he is Santos’s predecessor: predecessor as president of Colombia. Uribe served in this role from 2002 to 2010.
In the run-up to the October 2 plebiscite, Santos led the Yes campaign — the campaign urging the adoption of the agreement. Uribe led the No campaign.
Cabbies have opinions, and mine is no exception. “I was for the treaty,” he says. “I still am. You’ve got to find a way to bring the guerrillas into society. We’ve got to stop all this war we’ve been having. There are too many people living in Bogotá who should be in villages or towns.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I mean, they’re living here because they’ve been driven out of their villages and towns — especially by the paramilitaries, who have taken over their property. They’ve been displaced.”
Entirely unprompted, the cabbie goes off on a tirade against Uribe. He does not know where we’re heading — or rather, why I am heading where we’re heading.
‐Uribe still has the air of a head of state. The air of a man around whom things revolve. To a degree, this is true.
I think of John Quincy Adams. What I mean is this: When I was a child, I marveled that JQA could serve in the House of Representatives, after being president. I couldn’t imagine the comedown. It must have taken a great deal of humility, I thought.
In any event, Uribe is in his senate, and a force in public life. A very big figure here.
‐He should have been an American politician, for he was born on the Fourth of July (1952). His hometown is Medellín — which became infamous around the world, for a drug cartel. “Did you ever think your city would be infamous?” I ask. “What did that feel like?”
Uribe answers that he was particularly happy to help Medellín, during his time as president. In only his third week in office, he dispatched a military battalion to the city’s Commune 13 — an especially nasty area. The people, says Uribe, had “lived in captivity, because of all kinds of narco-terrorist groups.” He rid Commune 13 of these groups — which indeed must have given him particular satisfaction.
Of course, he did the same for Colombia at large.
‐For a brief time, in 1982, he was mayor of Medellín. The next year, his father, Alberto, was murdered by the FARC. Uribe’s career-long fight against the FARC is national, humane, and patriotic, no doubt. But it must have a degree of the personal too.
‐Let’s talk about the FARC, just briefly. They were founded in 1964, when Communist groups were proliferating in Latin America: These groups wanted to emulate what Fidel Castro and his band had done in Cuba.
Peru had the “Shining Path,” and Colombia had the FARC (along with other groups). I once did a piece comparing the Shining Path and al-Qaeda. (I’m afraid that my Internet skills have not been able to call up the piece.) The similarities are remarkable — right down to narrow tactics.
The FARC was, and is, proudly Communist. But they are more. In the course of time — this is an interesting story — they became kings of cocaine. Indeed, they were the biggest drug cartel in the world. FARC guerrillas are, or were, a combination of Communist revolutionaries and narco-terrorists.
Is the FARC still in business, after the ratification of the peace deal by the Colombian congress? That is a subject for later . . .
For 50 years, the FARC terrorized Colombia: killing, kidnapping, enslaving, etc. I will forgo a catalogue of their crimes, sensational as it would be. If you’d like a taste — if you can stomach a taste — see this column by Mary Anastasia O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal.
The FARC is not only murderous; it is sadistic, if you will allow the distinction, or addition.
‐More than 220,000 people have been killed, and more than 8 million displaced, in this . . . conflict? What should we call it? The term “civil war” is used around the world, including by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. But it is radioactive here in Colombia. To many people — not all of them hard-liners, by any means — it is offensive and obnoxious.
Álvaro Uribe is one such person. Colombia is the oldest democracy in Latin America, he says, and groups such as the FARC operate against this democratic Colombia. The FARC has no more than 6,000 members; Colombia has 50 million people. This long, long conflict has been a menacing of society by terrorists.
A friend of mine in Bogotá says, “Civil war? A classic one would be the Spanish Civil War, in the 1930s: brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor. A society split down the middle. Colombia is something else. We are talking about hit-and-run attacks by narco-terrorists.”
‐In the late 1990s, the governments of Colombia and the United States joined forces against the narcos in what was known as “Plan Colombia.” On the Colombian side was President Andrés Pastrana and on the American side President Bill Clinton. They tried various measures: military, diplomatic, and social. Pastrana engaged in a peace process with the FARC, which went nowhere. The narcos grew in power and wealth. By 2002, the FARC had something like 20,000 members. According to some, they were on the verge of taking the whole country.
This is important to understand: The rescue of Colombia was a very close-run thing. The guerrillas, whatever their numbers, had the society by the throat. This old democratic state was almost brought down by a Marxist-Leninist, drug-fueled movement.
Don’t be too hard on Pastrana, say wise heads in Colombia — wise and Uribist heads: He may have made some mistakes, but he was doing his best, and he had a very weak hand to play. One of his achievements was to alert the world to Colombia’s fragility and desperation.
‐It was in this atmosphere — an atmosphere of fragility, fear, and desperation — that Uribe was elected president. He vowed to defeat the FARC and give Colombians their society back. He began a policy he called “democratic security,” which insisted on the rule of law — the law of the state, not of the narcos, who were a law unto themselves. The policy also insisted that the Colombian state had the right and the responsibility to govern every inch of the country. No more would swaths, large and small, be ceded to the terrorists.
This may seem an obvious thing, an elementary thing. It wasn’t in Colombia, not then.
Uribe was willing to negotiate with guerrillas and narcos, to be sure. In fact, he did so — but on strict conditions. Most prominently, outlaws would have to cease their attacks before talks could begin. In the FARC, Uribe found no partner.
So he took the fight to them, unrelentingly. In this, he had a full partner in Washington: President George W. Bush.
‐I will relate a memory. I was talking to a high official of the administration — the first term of Bush 43. He said that Bush looked at Uribe and said, “You have to kill the FARC. Period. You have to kill the FARC.”
(It should probably go without saying that no one would have a greater incentive than Álvaro Uribe. Of course, millions of Colombians shared this incentive.)
‐Uribe is grateful to Bush, saying, “He trusted me,” through good days and bad. Crucially, Bush agreed to Uribe’s request that the United States sell Colombia “smart weapons,” to deploy against the FARC and other narcos. “This was the tipping point for us,” says Uribe. “It changed the equation against terrorist groups.”
I think of what Churchill said in early 1941: “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.” That’s it, Uribe agrees. “The smart weapons, the precise weapons, were the best tools we could have gotten.”
‐Uribe and his allies, foremost among them President Bush, did not quite finish the job, in that the FARC was still alive by the time Uribe left office in 2010. But the FARC was greatly weakened, greatly diminished. They were in such a reduced state that they would soon be willing to talk disbandment.
Bush left office in January 2009. In his last week, he hung the Presidential Medal of Freedom around the necks of three heads of state, three close allies: Tony Blair of Britain, John Howard of Australia, and Uribe.
Thank you, dear readers, and I will resume this series tomorrow.
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