Colombia and FARC: Prospects for Peace

Tuesday, March 29, 2016
John Vizcaino/Reuters
Bernard W. Aronson

Founding Partner, ACON Investments;
U.S. Special Envoy on the Colombia Peace Process
(via videoconference from Washington, DC)

Cynthia Arnson

Director, Latin American Program,
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Daniel Restrepo

Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress;
Former Special Assistant to the President, National Security Council

Michael Skol

Principal, Skol & Serna; Former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela;
Former U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America

Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Bernard W. Aronson, founding partner at ACON Investments and U.S. special envoy on the Colombia Peace Process; Daniel Restrepo, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former special assistant to the president at the National Security Council; join Michael Skol of Skol and Serna to discuss the ongoing peace negotiations between FARC leaders and the Colombian government. Focusing on the likelihood of success and the implications of a completed deal, the panelists view Colombia as a U.S. foreign policy success story, where a deal would represent the culmination of years of work. Weighing in on public opinion regarding the negotiations, the challenges and shortcomings of the deal, and the current state of the Colombian economy, the panel assesses the evolution of the process and what the future holds for the Colombian people.

SKOL: OK, welcome. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, Colombia and FARC: Prospects for Peace. You know, the Colombia story is a very dramatic one, about which more Americans should know. By the way, that’s the eternal lament of the Latin Americans. But in this case, it’s very true. More people should know what’s happening in Colombia, what happened in Colombia, and should be concerned about what will happen in Colombia, and some of the lessons and parallels that we can draw from the Colombian situation.

There’s many elements. There’s the failure of the Pastrana—previous president’s attempt at negotiating with the FARC a couple presidents ago. There’s Plan Colombia, which is arguably the most successful U.S. foreign assistance program since the Marshall Plan. I’ll go beyond what Dan Restrepo would say, 21st century, since the Marshall Plan, and for some of the same reasons, including the fact that it was U.S., bipartisan support all along the line with the Colombia plan, as with the Marshall Plan. Again, there are lessons learned, there are parallels to other negotiations, lots of questions.

I’d like to present, before we actually get in with the panelists, two Colombian officials who are present here. Ambassador Miguel Camilo Ruiz Blanco, who is the deputy representative of Colombia to the United Nations, and Maria Isabel Nieto Jaramillo, Consul General of Colombia in New York. Bienvenidos.

All right, now to introduce the panelists. You all have the individual bios, so I’m not going to read all of what we have there. First, Cindy Arnson—a.k.a. Cynthia, but Cindy Arnson—who is the director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, and a distinguished expert on Latin American politics and international relations. Particularly relevant are her studies of democratization and internal armed conflict in Latin American, and comparative peace processes in Latin America.

From D.C., from Washington, Bernie Aronson, founding partner of ACON Investments. He was the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs from 1989 to 1993. And of marginal importance, my boss during all of that period of time. (Laughter.) He’s noted especially for forging the bipartisan consensus in Washington on Central America, which was then the leading issue in Latin American for the U.S. in foreign affairs. Interestingly enough, the great negotiation, as I recall, was not—was not in Central America, or among the Central Americas, or the U.S. with Central America. It was in Washington to secure that bipartisan consensus. I know the word bipartisan doesn’t arise much these days, but it certainly did at that time. Bernie was named the U.S. special envoy to the Colombian peace process by President Obama in February of last year.

And Dan Restrepo here served from 2009 to 2012 as the senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council, as well as an advisor to President Obama during the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. He was previously at the Center for American Progress, where he created and directed the Americas Projects. He is currently back at the center, where he is a senior fellow. And just for the record, my own personal involvement with Bogotá, with Colombia, stems from 1985 when I arrived at deputy chief of mission at our embassy there. And I’ve been closely engaged with Colombia ever since then, and proudly so.

Let’s begin with Bernie. Bernie, the deadline has passed—the original deadline, March 24th. Where is the negotiation now? What are the obstacles? What’s left?

ARONSON: Well, first of all, it’s great to see three friends and colleagues—Mike, and Cindy, and Dan—all of whom I respect very much.

You know, this negotiation has been going on for four years, if you count the sort of secret preliminary talks. And an enormous amount has been accomplished to date. There’s been agreement on a very ambitious program of rural reform in titles and land and credit for campesinos. There’s agreement on illicit narcotics. There’s agreement on political participation and on victims, including transitional justice. So we’re now down to the end of conflict issues. And those are really, you know, DDR—disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration.

And the kind of issues that are still on the table are the number of zones of concentration where the FARC will locate with the formal ceasefire begins, where those zones are, how much population will be there, what are the rules of the game for the FARC to interact with the civilian population. There’s an issue of the timetable and modalities of disarmament. There are some remaining issues, such as the method of selecting the judges for the special tribunal under transitional justice. There are concerns of the FARC to have some visibility on the amnesty issue as that will play out. And then there’s the final issue of security for post-conflict actors, which the FARC is obviously very focused on.

I would not make too much of the fact that the March 23rd deadline was not met. The parties were working hard to try to get the basic outlines of the formal ceasefire and the timetable for disarmament done. It didn’t quite get there. But everybody’s engaged at the end game. And I think the fact that those are the issues on the table is a good thing. You know, having said that, and I told this to the parties and Secretary of State Kerry told that to the parties, and particularly the FARC, you know, time is not on the side of the peace process in either country. And it’s important that they make the tough decisions that they need to make. I’m confident that they’ll get there, but until they do there’s always risk to the peace process that we have to be mindful of.

SKOL: Bernie, what’s your role? Why are you there?

ARONSON: Well, I’m there, first, because President Santos asked the president and the secretary of state to increase engagement of the United States in the peace process itself. As you noted in your introductory remarks, the United States has been intimately involved with Colombia as a junior partner in their efforts to change the correlation of forces on the battlefield. We’ve been very much involved in issues like human rights, and judicial reform, and other—certainly counter-narcotics. And they felt that it would be useful for the FARC to see, you know, what the U.S. perspective was, and to understand that we were strongly supportive of the process, and also committed to help implement the process.

You know, the role I play is kind of utility infielder. I’m not the mediator, but I talk to both sides, and sometimes try to bridge differences and suggest modes of breaking deadlocks, and suggest—sometimes help each other—each side interpret the other—to the other. So I talk to everybody who’s down there, the Cubans and the Norwegians, and the U.N., and the FARC, and the government, and et cetera. And I hope I’ve helped, in small ways, to move the process along.

SKOL: Well, this—the process itself, the timing of the process, is very controversial in Colombia. Former President Uribe, who certainly was the single individual most responsible for the progress of Colombia through Plan Colombia, he’s called this a capitulation to FARC. Many Colombians, perhaps most, hard to say, seem to agree. The polls show startling differences. The majority of Colombians want peace. The majority of Colombians are also skeptical and don’t trust the FARC. Some international human rights groups are worried about the impunity which they say is involved in where the negotiations are going right now. Cindy, I wonder if you could comment on some of this.

ARNSON: Thanks, Mike. And, again, thanks to the Council for this invitation and for this discussion of Colombia.

Colombian public opinion is very sour right now. The economy is suffering. The growth rate, although by Latin American standards is still pretty decent, around 3 percent. The peso has lost about 50 percent of its value over the last 18 months. Things are more expensive. There’s the beginning of inflation. Colombia’s dominant export earner, oil, has suffered from those same declines in oil prices that effect exporting countries. So there’s that. There’s the effect of a long drought that has made electricity generation much more complicated. And so there’s a series of issues. And then it doesn’t help that at various times—not only that the peace talks didn’t conclude on February 23rd, both the FARC and the government had begun to prepare public opinion for that—but when things are granted to the FARC that they seem to be violating the spirit if not the letter of what’s been agreed to.

And there was in mid-February—I was actually in Colombia at the time—an episode in which the FARC commanders were allowed to go back into various zones and explain the agreement to their rank and file. And one of the senior FARC commanders appeared in a province called La Guajira, surrounded by armed guerrillas in military uniform. And this was seen as, or taken, as a demonstration of the way FARC—you know, the FARC really intended to continue, you know, armed politics and wasn’t serious about the demobilization. The FARC, of course, caught by surprise, as they usually are, because they’re totally out of touch with Colombian public opinion, with the kind of reaction that that would have.

So public opinion is divided. I would say that it’s also a little bit schizophrenic. As you mentioned, the majority of people favor peace, the majority of people—vast majority, something well-over 95 percent of the population—distrust the FARC. But there are also a majority who believe that it is preferable to negotiate than to try to defeat the FARC on the battlefield. And I think that has been President Uribe’s biggest criticism of the whole peace process, that Colombia was on the verge of a military defeat of the FARC, and Santos, rather than going for that solution, decided to open the negotiations. So that he considers—he refused during his eight years in office to recognize that there was an armed insurgency in Colombia, referring to the FARC as a terrorist group. And insists to this day that you should not be sitting down with terrorists.

SKOL: Yeah, and one of the great questions, you know, when do you negotiate? How far do you go? Dan?

RESTREPO: Right. So part of this is kind of classic counterinsurgency, right? It’s the—a lot of the dynamics that have just been discussed are the function of in a counterinsurgency you don’t kill the last insurgent. You end up at a—at a table. And quite frankly, one of the things that, just as a narrative construct, that the Colombian government has lost and had to lose because of the—because they’re at the table, is that the Colombian government, and particularly President Santos, killed his way to the negotiating table.

And what I mean by that, the Colombian government beginning in 2008 and then in 2010 struck at the highest level of the FARC construct, of the general secretariat, and managed to kill members of the general secretariat for the first time in the 50-year conflict. So it’s not an accident that those who remain among the general secretariat found the incentive to sit down and talk. They were highly incentivized to sit down and talk. Part of the trick, though, of them talking is that you have to, just as a rhetorical matter, the Colombian government had to back off of that. And that’s part of what has happened.

So, and another thing that’s happened, and this is part of—they’re a victim of their own success, both the killing the way to the table and most of—so, in Colombia, there’s a lot of talk about posconflicto, right? After the conflict. The trick, and its picked up in all the polling we’re talking about, the vast majority of the Colombian populace today lives in the posconflicto. It’s already there because over the course of the last 15 years—and we can get into this—through Plan Colombia and through the remarkable work of the Colombian government and Colombian people, they’ve pushed the FARC back out to the margins, right?

So if this negotiation were taking place in 2002, it would be a very different negotiation. But if it were taking place in 2002 and there was a promise that the level of violence and threat to large urban areas that existed in 2000 to 2002 and beyond was to go away one day to the next with an agreement, you’d probably have more support for the process. But because that threat has already been eliminated for the vast majority of the people who are being asked their opinion in public opinion polling, and because the FARC has an approval rating that has hovered around 3 to 5 percent for the course of the conflict, there is—that’s the disconnect, right?

The government is now sitting at the table, seemingly conceding—within the narrative construct of President Uribe—conceding a lot of things to a force that was military—they weren’t on the verge of being militarily defeated. They were militarily defeated in the context of a counterinsurgency. And further evidence of that is, and this is a complicated fact for President Uribe, he tried starting negotiations with the FARC when he was president of Colombia, something that he seems to forget every so often when he talks about the topic today. (Laughter.) Because that’s how this process has to end. So that’s the push-pull that you see in the kind of Colombian psyche right now, because—and it’s classic to the form. And this the most successful 21st century counterinsurgency the planet has seen.

ARNSON: If I could—

ARONSON: It’s also worth pointing out—just on this point about Colombian public opinion—whoops. I can’t hear them and they can’t hear me.

SKOL: We can hear you.

ARONSON: Sorry, guys. Two things. One, President Santos ran for reelection on a very clear commitment to undertake a peace process. And he won the election against a candidate backed by President Uribe who was much more skeptical. So he has an electoral mandate. But more important, as you know, he is committed to put the final agreement to a plebiscite where the Colombian people will vote up or down on this. So Colombia’s a good democracy. It’s a good thing, a healthy thing there’s critics and supporters. And that’s natural. But at the end of the day, the Colombian people will decide are these terms they’re willing to accept to end this 51-year old war.

ARNSON: Right, if I could jump in. I think Dan touched on an important point, I mean, having to do with public opinion, but really having to do with the nature of the conflict in Colombia. This is a country that is about—even though about 80 percent of the population lives in urban areas now, about 70 percent of the country is rural. And that’s where the conflict has taken place. And when you visit conflict zones and you talk to mayors of towns where guerillas and paramilitaries have been killing not only each other, but the civilian population for decades, those are the people that want the conflict to end. Those are the people who want roads built to their communities, that want economic opportunity for the civilians that live there, and that also show a greater sort of disposition towards reconciliation with the FARC.

And I think that’s also a very important thing to keep in mind. There have been very few public opinion polls in Colombia that actually gauge not just people in big cities—a good sampling throughout big cities, but go to the areas of the countryside where the conflict has been fought. And the one major one that was one, it’s already a couple years old from 2012, shows that there is overwhelming difference in the people who have lived and borne the brunt of this conflict in terms of their attitudes of what should take place afterwards than the majority of Colombians.

SKOL: But how do you interpret the—what Uribe has actually said? He says it’s a capitulation to the FARC. And in reading what he says, it’s not a criticism of the fact of negotiations; it’s where he sees the negotiations and what’s been published and stated so far, for example the issue if impunity. Where are we—where are the Colombians and the FARC in impunity? Cindy first, then Dan, and then Bernie.

ARNSON: Great.

Well, I think it’s true in any peace process in any country in the world that the issue of transitional justice is the most difficult. And it’s often seen as a tradeoff between peace and justice. And I think the norms over the last two decades, internationally and ratified by individual countries, have shown that that doesn’t have to be as drastic a tradeoff as it sometimes sees—sometimes seems.

And there is a mechanism—there is a judicial mechanism for hearing confessions from FARC members. I think the sticking point is that those who confess and are found guilty are not going to be sent to jail. They are going to spend time in some kind of alternative form of deprivation of liberty. And I think that’s been a sticking point. The same provisions that apply to the FARC will also apply to the armed forces, and that’s another issue that the human rights community has—

SKOL: The equivalence.

ARNSON: Well, the equivalence between a legitimate actor and an illegitimate actor, but also the fact that people in the military who have actually been convicted for their role in human rights crimes will be subject to this new alternative for—

RESTEPO: Right. The critique from Human Rights Watch and others in the human rights community is much more the second than the equivalence. Within Colombia there is a—the equivalence is a matter of dispute and particular part of Uribe’s narrative on this.

Again, one of the challenges here of doing this peace—the process, when it is being done, is that it is post the Rome Statute. So it is post the International Criminal Court, an International Criminal Court, quite frankly, that is desperate to bring a case outside of Africa, for its own legitimacy.

So one of the—and that’s two-sided, right? That is both trying to find a point—the Colombian government and those who negotiated and those who have looked at this from a legal perspective think they’ve found that point that complies with their international responsibilities while also getting the peace and justice balance right. But at the end of the day there are international jurisdictions that will be watching and will be able to opine on this as well, so I think that actually should hearten folks who are looking at this process.

And the question—and I don’t think we should spend too much time trying to figure out the Uribe-Santos divide because I think there’s a lot to it, and there’s a lot unpacking to it because the impunity thing, given the terms in which the paramilitaries were demobilized under President Uribe, strikes one again as one of those things that—do as I say not as I do, just as, negotiate with the FARC but don’t. But I think, at the end of the day, again, one of the challenges here is that this is—you’re trying to end a 50-year conflict under a very modern set of rules and finding that point to comply with international responsibilities while getting the balance right.

And the FARC’s challenge—and the last point—and this isn’t the first time Colombia has attempted to end this particular conflict. And previous attempts have failed for a variety of reasons, but one of them quite famously failed because as soon as the FARC began to come in from the cold, as it were, or in from the heat, they got whacked over and over and over and over again. So there are real concerns on their side for their own safety and security going forward.

SKOL: Bernie, could you explain to us, to me, what the 13 percent in the plebiscite really means?

ARONSON: As I remember, it just is a threshold that has to be met in order to have enough votes to validate the process.

SKOL: So do you really need—

ARONSON: So there needs to be 25 turnout and 13 percent at a minimum to vote for the agreement.

RESTEPO: That’s correct, right.

ARONSON: And the reason—

SKOL: OK, and the final vote has to be over half?

ARNSON: Bernie, if I could just—

ARONSON: It has to be—it has to be over half of—

RESTEPO: Of the 25 (percent).


ARNSON: Right.

ARONSON: —percent that’s required, yes. So that would be 13 percent. And the reason—

SKOL: Because, frankly, the government hasn’t made it very clear, and there’s been a lot of criticism of why they went from 50 percent to 13 percent, which is not the case.


ARONSON: Mike, the reason—the reason they structured it this way is that they were afraid that then the vote will be determined by no-shows and that the opposition would just tell people not to vote. And they didn’t think that was a democratic way to settle it so they required a reasonable threshold but less than they have in their own municipal and other elections.

SKOL: OK, can we turn backwards just a little bit to Plan Colombia and the future of Plan Colombia, as I think there’s almost universal agreement that it has been a startling historic success, whether you want to call it nation building, which is another term which is out of favor these days.

Dan, Bernie, how do you explain Plan Colombia in a few words, and does it give us lessons—parallels for U.S. policy elsewhere in Latin America and perhaps elsewhere in the world?

ARONSON: Let me take a stab and then let Dan respond.

SKOL: Yep.

ARONSON: I think there are few things that were unique to Plan Colombia that made it work. One was, as you mentioned, it has been a bipartisan policy from the beginning. It was promulgated by a democratic president, Bill Clinton, with the strong support of Trent Lott and Denny—

RESTEPO: Hastert.

ARONSON: What’s his—Hastert—

ARNSON: Dennis Hastert.

ARONSON: —the speaker of the House. And it has had strong bipartisan support. So we have not, you know, been up and down in terms of our commitment, and depending on who’s in power we haven’t—we’ve stayed the course.

And secondly is the question of burden sharing, where the Colombians, I think as Dan mentioned earlier, really stepped up and led the way on this. Ninety-five percent of the resources devoted to Plan Colombia were provided by Colombians. They raised their own taxes. They vastly increased the size of their armed forces and police. They bore the brunt of this effort.

And we were an important partner. I don’t diminish our role at all. A lot of very good Americans, civilian and armed forces, played a crucial role in this. But we were really not driving the bus. The Colombians were driving the bus. They own this. And I think that made a huge difference as well.

And I would say also that, you know, the Colombian government, under Santos, and we also, were wise enough not to simply, as Dan warned against, you know, try to end this with the last insurgent, you know, in his grave but were open to possibilities to create political space for an alternative once the military component had succeeded.

SKOL: Dan?

RESTEPO: So, yeah, I think I agree with everything Bernie just said. I think there’s kind of five quick elements. A bunch have been touched on. So bipartisan support in Washington, primarily—most of that bipartisan support, though, has been when we’ve had Democratic presidents and Republicans in Congress. Democrats in Congress have had a different relationship with Plan Colombia, although now the support for Colombia has shifted within the U.S. Congress, and we can get to that.

I think one of the really important pieces here—and we’ve touched on it—is burden sharing. So a quick context: The U.S. has spent $10 billion on Plan Colombia in the last 15 years. That’s 29 days of spending in Iraq and Afghanistan on combat and reconstruction aspirations, all right, over the course of the last 13 years. So it’s a very small U.S. investment that turned what was at the time the most dangerous country in the world at a homicide rate—cut the homicide rate in half, cut the kidnapping rate 80 percent.

And it wasn’t the—it wasn’t the U.S. $10 billion that did that. The U.S. had a catalytic effect. One of the really important pieces was a lead consensus in Colombia that is now fraying, that as we think about the future is something to keep in mind. But the Colombian elite—and I’m—full disclosure, I am the grandchild of Colombian oligarchs—(laughter)—and Colombia is not something I just do professionally; it’s something that’s very near and dear to my heart. My oldest siblings were born in Colombia. My dad was born and raised in Medellin. My grandfather was Colombia’s ambassador to the United States.

But the Colombia elite was in the abyss. They didn’t look into the abyss; they were living in the abyss. And they decided to stay and fight for their own country in a way a lot of elites in Latin America have not done, who have decided to take refuge in south Florida or elsewhere in the United States and run their businesses from afar. For the most part the Colombia elite did not do that. They found in Alvaro Uribe a leader they could trust that they were willing to invest in, literally invest in. And that had a tremendous effect on the ability to do this.

Colombia also has a bunch of advantages that, when you start thinking about counterinsurgency elsewhere, you don’t have, right? It’s a unitary state that has had more or less governance institutions for a long time, a varying ability to reach all parts of the territory, doesn’t have racial and ethnic—religious and ethnic conflict at its core.

And the U.S. piece of this has been incredibly well coordinated. It has been incredibly well coordinated both in Washington, starting with Tom Pickering when the ball got rolling, but also, again, being one country, right? A lot of people talk about Central America now and how can you—the lessons to be learned. The challenge in Central America is you have multiple country teams, multiple actors.

We’ve had a long string now of very capable U.S. ambassadors in Bogotá who have run a very complex embassy team, country teams. But again, without the willingness and the investment of the Colombian people, both treasure and blood, this wouldn’t have been—this wouldn’t have worked.


ARNSON: If I could just highlight one of the many things that Bernie and Dad just said, I think the critical ingredient in the success of Plan Colombia, in addition to the bipartisanship, which I agree was important, was the quality of leadership on the Colombian side in the police, in the military, in the civilian government—I mean, across the board. And it’s interesting to me that there have been not one but maybe three U.S. ambassadors to Colombia that have subsequently been sent to Afghanistan—


ARNSON: —in an effort to transplant the sort of—the way that nation building was seen as having gone successfully—

SKOL: Each of whom discovered that Afghanistan was not Colombia. (Laughter.)

ARNSON: —that Afghanistan is a very different place.

RESTEPO: It too has mountains but it’s not Colombia. (Laughter.)

ARNSON: Exactly, which goes to—which I think goes to this critical thing that in order to make these policies work, whether it’s in Central America or Colombia or somewhere else, you have to have national leadership that is committed to the kinds of transformations that you are trying to support. And without that, there is really very little that—

SKOL: And before we turn to questions from members, I just want to add one thing. The money spent by the U.S. and used by, for example, the Colombian military, all went to the right purpose. There were no golf clubs being built in Bogotá—


SKOL: —no officer’s clubs or anything of the sort, and no corruption. It all went basically to putting brigades and helicopters in the field.

RESTEPO: To that point, the second-largest Black Hawk fleet in the world—

SKOL: Yes.

RESTEPO: —Colombia—

SKOL: Right.

RESTEPO: —after the United States.

SKOL: And the second or third most effective hostage rescue—


SKOL: —system in the world, along with the United States and Israel.

Now let’s turn to questions from members. A reminder, this meeting is on the record. Wait for the microphone—they’re circulating around—and speak directly into it. Please stand, state your name and affiliation. And please limit yourself to one question and keep it concise to allow as many members as possible to speak.


Q: Is there a mic?

ARONSON: Right there. Right there.

Q: Stanley Arkin.

A simple question: Is FARC still recruiting?

SKOL: Bernie, the question was, is FARC still recruiting?

RESTEPO: Undoubtedly.

SKOL: Does anybody know?

ARONSON: They claim they’re not recruiting below 18. They don’t have a lot of visible signs that they’re recruiting in an active way, or training troops, you know. They don’t entirely make a distinction between their militia cadres and their fulltime soldiers. So they’re not trying to act as a political actor so they’re probably trying to increase the size of the population that listens to them, which is probably why they had that problem at Conejo with Ivan Marquez. But they don’t look like an army preparing to go into battle in the future.


SKOL: The way they were under Pastrana.

RESTEPO: The previous—right.

SKOL: Yeah.

RESTEPO: But one of the interesting points here is that during the pendency of these talks, unlike in previous attempts, the Colombian government didn’t—I mean, they’ve moderated and modulated what they’re doing in terms of militarily—

SKOL: Right.

RESTEPO: —in terms of against the FARC, but neither side stopped, right, which was a break with the past models of trying to have a negotiated settlement.

So it wouldn’t surprise me—yes, I agree with Bernie. There’s no kind of—this is not—they’re not using this time to bolster themselves as they did back in the day in Caguán because the circumstances are very different. But it would not surprise me if there is still, at a local level, some what would pass as recruitment going on.


ARONSON: Yeah, perhaps, but I think the point you made about the nature of the ceasefire is extremely important because it’s a fundamental divide in the negotiations.

President Santos has said from day one he’s not going to enter into a ceasefire—a formal ceasefire and relinquish military pressure until the FARC commits to a timetable for disarmament. And he just reiterated this two days ago in the country. So I think that’s been a wise decision and I think, you know, if there’s going to be progress made in the next few weeks it’s going to be about that subject.

SKOL: Yeah.

ARNSON: If I could just jump in, though, there has been a unilateral ceasefire since last July. And as a result, Colombia is about as peaceful as it has ever been in half a century.


ARNSON: I mean, I almost fell off my chair when we took a congressional staff delegation to Colombia in mid-February, when I asked the U.S. ambassador about security concerns about going to the countryside, because we were very committed to doing that, and he said: I have no security concerns. And I was just like, wow, that is quite a statement. That is quite a statement, given the history of this conflict.



Q: Jeff Laurenti.

Let me first thank Dan Restrepo for changing the dress code for speakers here—(laughter)—at the Council and humanizing it a bit. (Applause.) Maybe we’ll see more of this in the future.

I wanted to ask, what were the political provisions for the FARC’s integration, or whatever, back into Colombian society? Do they have anything to, quote, “show,” end quote, to either their own faithful or the broader Colombian public in the way of political reform, some kind of guaranteed access to the political system? What is it that Uribe is essentially railing against?

ARNSON: If I could jump in, there have been about almost 25,000 FARC combatants that have voluntarily demobilized in probably the last decade or so, just trying to get out. And I would say that the Colombian Agency for Reintegration, the ACR, is one of the most impressive operations and probably the best DDR program anyplace in the world, where people come in, there’s a process of interviews, but they are followed for a period of four, five, six years to get training. Some of these people pass their entire adolescence, you know, in the guerilla ranks—don’t have school, don’t have job skills—and they are given those things so that they can play a role in society.

One of the sticking issues not just for Uribe but also for the Conservative Party for Marta Lucia Ramirez, who was a presidential candidate in the last elections, is precisely this question of anyone in the FARC being allowed to participate in politics without regard to the kind of behavior that they exhibited during the conflict. So you could have, theoretically, people that are responsible for major human rights violations.

I would also say, as someone who has studied conflict resolution around the region, that the whole purpose of a peace process is to move the conflict from the military to the political arena. And so you want people to lay down their weapons and participate democratically and without use of force in the democratic process. That’s why you do a peace process. And we heard that over and over again from mayors in conflict zones who said: They should come and present themselves. You know, they should run. We want them to do that and not what they’re doing otherwise.

SKOL: Bernie?

ARONSON: And just to respond to his specific question about what are the issues involved in political participation, so the FARC will argue that they have not had a chance to amass votes in the previous elections because of the rebellion. They seem some kind of formula for their first entry into politics where they won’t have to have shown that they won X percentage of the votes in the previous election, which would disenfranchise them. They want some kind of action against that they think is corruption in politics and vote buying.

And then the security issue is very important to them as well, that Dan alluded to. You know, when they formed the Union Patriótica in 1985, they fielded candidates. They won—Ivan Marquez, who was the chief negotiator, was a member of the congress at the time. He’s the only one who survived the paramilitary massacres at that time.

So they are going to argue that there ought to be some sort of a catch-up for the fact that they had seats and they won them, you know, in democratic means and they were taken through violence. And so how that’s all sorted out is part of the negotiations that are underway.

SKOL: And Secretary Kerry has promised U.S. support for that. Is that not true? That’s what the news reports say.

ARONSON: Yeah, that’s correct. That was the meeting we just had in Havana when the president was down there. And that’s part of what the funds that the president has requested for fiscal ’17 will go to, to help the Colombians—who have the prime responsibility in this area—but to help them provide security for demobilized FARC members, and including leadership that seeks to enter politics.

And from the FARC’s point of view, they say that’s more than just a bulletproof vest and an armored vehicle. What they want the government to do is uproot what they call—and I want to emphasize, this is their terminology—you know, paramilitarism which they believe still exists in Colombia. So they want to go after the criminal gangs that are heavily involved in narcotics, extortion, but they believe have sometimes links to the corrupt local officials. So they want the government to make a systematic effort to dismantle them. And the government is, in fact, doing that. The largest and most dangerous of these bacrim, the criminal gangs, is called Usuga—Clan Usuga. The government has been taking them down and relentlessly dismantling them for the last year and a half. And that’s something the FARC raised with me in the first meeting I had with them.

SKOL: Way back there.

Q: Thank you. My name is Diego Senior. I’m with W Radio and Caracol. Qué tal, Dan?

RESTREPO: Hola. You?


Q: Bien. So, Mr. Aronson, I’m wondering if you can expand, please, on something in particular you said earlier about how time is not on the side of either, I believe you said, country, but maybe you meant party. Can you expand on that please?

ARONSON: Well, what I meant is that there’s a political clock ticking in both countries. And I said to the FARC, and I think they know this, that they not only want to sign the accord with President Santos, they want him to the be the president who implements the accord because he believes in it, it’s his personal commitment, he’s going to try faithfully to carry out the commitments that he made in that agreement, and he’ll have time to do that. But if the FARC fritters away that part and the peace process loses support, it’s highly unlikely the next president of Colombia’s going to run on a peace platform. So I think there’s a window of opportunity with Santos that the FARC should take advantage of.

And then here in the States there’s also a political clock running. And it’s not clear, you know, what the complexion of the next administration would be. But it may be also much less sympathetic to the peace process. So I think the FARC has to watch those clocks and try to move ahead in a—you know, in a pretty expeditious way.

RESTREPO: And after listening to that answer, we know why Bernie’s such a good diplomat, especially the second part—(laughter)—describing the political realities in the United States.

SKOL: Yeah.

Q: David Rivkin.

I was just wondering if you could describe a little bit the status of the special tribunal that’s being set up, and how it’s—what it’s expected to do, how it’s expected to work.

ARNSON: I can offer a few comments on that, which is to say I don’t know a lot, but the status of the tribunal is being challenged before the Constitutional Court. There’s discrepancies about how the judges will be named, whether they’ll be named and appointed by the parties to the peace talks. So there’ll be some other form of nomination by judicial entities. So I think that’s still something that needs to be ironed out. And it may just be that I am ignorant of how that has come to be.

ARONSON: That issue is a—Cindy?

ARNSON: Yeah, go ahead.

SKOL: Go ahead, Bernie.

ARONSON: The parties are not going to choose the judges in the special tribunal. They’re going to choose institutions, you know, as they remain to be named but it could be the U.N., it could be the church, it could respected bar associations in Colombia, which will then, based on criteria similar to what you would use to have a Supreme Court judge, would be applied to these judges. But the parties will not—this is something the human rights community is concerned about, but I don’t think it’s going to happen the way they’re worried about it.

RESTREPO: And just one real quick, just from a procedural standpoint, I think as Bernie pointed out, kind of having missed March 23rd is not the end of days. And I think one of the—kind of a way of understanding that is, quite frankly, I think some of the transitional justice agreement was rushed for its own political purposes at the time, and then then spent a bunch of—they’ve had to spend a bunch of time kind of putting Humpty Dumpty properly together. So rather than rush here at the end to get to March 23rd, I think it was probably a good thing that they missed that—that they didn’t necessarily rush an agreement on March 23rd, and rather using this extra time to get something that’s more fully baked than necessarily some of the interim have been when they’ve been announced.

SKOL: Do all three of you think there’s going to be an agreement?

ARNSON: Absolutely. I think—absolutely, this year. Absolutely.

ARONSON: Yes, I do. (Laughter.)

SKOL: OK, let’s go—right here. Yeah.

Q: Oh, hi. My name is Gabriel Piedrahita (sp). I’m from Elgene (ph). I live here with my company.

But I have a question. I grew up in a small town outside of Medellin, in Sulo Oeste (ph). And friends of mine were killed but the guerilla, friends of mine were killed by the paramilitaries. I vote for Uribe twice, because I pretty much saw the government trying to negotiate in bringing he guerillas to the political arena, and it didn’t work out. We saw the whole thing. Then, we saw them trafficking jobs, like as a source of—you know, like entrepreneurial kind of thing. And so people, they start becoming very (upset ?) about these things. But also, one thing that I saw, it’s the difference between generations. For instance, my mom is very—100 percent with Uribe. I’m a little tired of Uribe already, because he’s not helping Santos.

So my question is, OK, now they are going to talk. What is going to be—because the people are really, and people that are pro-Uribe, there is a lot of part of the Colombians. We are kind of thinking about who’s going to be next, you know? And if—who is next? Who is going to guarantee that these peace talks are going to be—stay for the next—who’s going to guarantee that? So that’s why just sort of people in Colombia are really aware that this is going to be a problem. So what is the thing to reassure people that—yeah, the long time. Thanks.

ARNSON: Essentially there are no guarantees. I mean, but Colombia will not have another presidential election for another few years, and it goes to the point that Bernie was saying, that the FARC itself is keen on having Santos in office during the first years of implementation. But your question also raises, I think, a very important issue of the post-accord period. We’ve been talking a lot about getting to the agreement. And I think, you know, most peace processes show that as difficult as it is to get the place where you’re signing, the implementation phase is 10 times more difficult.

And what is striking to me is that no matter who you talk to in Colombia—whether it’s the government, whether it’s a civil society organization, the private sector, the negotiators themselves—they are concerned about what happens, who fills the vacuum of power when the FARC demobilizes? Who will fill those so-called ungoverned spaces? Whether the government has the capacity to move in with security, but not just security, the kind of development programs that are needed in those areas, whether they will be filled by the bacrim, we should have no sort of illusion that all of the FARC is going to demobilize.

I think the biggest concern is at the mid-level, commanders, people that have been deeply involved in drug trafficking who are going to recycle into new forms of violence. Colombia, unfortunately, does have a long traditional also of those kind of recycling forms of—you know, morphing of one form of violence into another. What’s going to happen with the ELN? There have been pre-negotiations going on for several years. I don’t think that they’re very close to getting to the negotiating table, certainly not an agenda that the ELN, you know, has historically insisted on, which is sovereignty over natural resources.

So there are lots of uncertainties about what’s going to happen in the post-conflict era. And security for demobilized FARC is a critical piece of it, but the I think equally critical piece is what happens to those vast areas, you know, of the country, that the government really has never controlled, and has significantly increase and enhanced its ability to control, you know, over these years of Plan Colombia, but by no means is that a finished task.

RESTREPO: I will with Cindy that there are no guarantees going forward. I also agree that—as hard as this is, the getting to the agreement is the easy part, the implementing it is going to be the challenging part. And one of the interesting things about the implementing is they are things that Colombia needs to do whether it reaches an agreement or not, right? The ability to project the state presence beyond the security sector into all portions of Colombia, something that has never been the case in the history of Colombia, is blessed in many ways, but its geography is a huge challenge, right? It’s the one place the Andes splits up into three mountain ranges. And that makes—has always made reaching all portions of Colombia, as you well know, very challenging for the state.

And all that said, I think part of the theory of the case, if you will, that President Santos talked about quite opening when he was in Washington recently, to talk about the past 15 years of the U.S. relationship and the next 15 years of the U.S.-Colombia relationship, was two-fold. One is putting the agreement to a vote of the population I think in part is meant to create some of that buffer, create some buy-in beyond a single individual, beyond this just being Santos and his administration having done it, but rather having popular support behind it to prove it. And also, I think there’s a belief that, you know, politics after an accord are going to look different, right? There’s going to be a clear before and after in terms of the politics.

That can go a bunch of different ways. But that the hope for is that the argument then becomes how do you go about implementing? Who is going to do this best and most effectively? And again, if you get to this question—Colombia’s made an enormous amount of progress over the last 15 years on socioeconomic terms, but it’s still an incredibly unequal country. It still has real socioeconomic challenges that Santos at the beginning of his administration started working on, made a big push on, and then during the pendency of the peace agreement has had implementation challenges. All that work needs to be done by whomever comes next. And the—again, the theory of the case is, that agreement—in a post-agreement environment you can argue about how best to implement, rather than having the argument that you’re currently having on whether to do or not.

ARONSON: Can I add something to that? I agree with what both Cindy and Dan said. It’s a big test of the Colombians’ ability to implement the very large and far-sighted commitments they’ve made. It’s also a test of the United States. You know, Colombia is unique in that we stayed the course through multiple administrations over 15 years, but normally we get heavily involved in a place, it doesn’t work, and then we leave, or it does work out partly and we leave. That certainly was true in Afghanistan after the Mujahedeen drove out the Soviet Union. And we declared victory, went home, and that vacuum was filled by the war lords and ultimately by the Taliban and al-Qaida.

So you know, we have—we have great budget restrictions right now. The Colombians have lost—you know, their oil revenue is cut by, you know, 70 percent because of the collapse in oil prices. So we both have to dig deep to find resources. But I hope those who care about Colombia will talk to our friends in the Congress and make the case that this is not the time to declare victory and walk away from all the reasons that were said about the importance of making this work and bridging the divide between the Colombians in the cities and the Colombians in the interiors. You know, we have a responsibility to maintain some level of support that helps the Colombians do that.

SKOL: Thank you.

Q: Hi. Thanks. Ben Ramsey from JPMorgan.

So I understand from the panel there’s basically a consensus that a deal will take place, but I’m wondering if the panel believes that a plebiscite will take place. I understand there’s some voices in the Colombian judiciary that think that the plebiscite may not be necessary, that it may be unconstitutional. And, to Dan’s point, if it doesn’t take place, to what degree will this be detrimental in terms of legitimatization, implementation after?

ARNSON: Right. Well, there’s nothing in the Colombian constitution that requires President Santos to submit the accord to a vote of the Colombian people. That was a political commitment that he made, both to fend off criticism that he was sitting behind closed doors and negotiating with this, you know, reviled military actor and not telling, you know, the Colombian people. And he kept saying, you know, don’t worry, don’t worry, whatever we agree to will be submitted to a vote.

There are a number of different mechanisms in the Colombian constitution. One is for a referendum that requires 25 percent of registered voters to show up. And there was a concern that in an off-electoral season that you would not be able to get 25 percent of registered voters to come out for a plebiscite, which is why—or for a referendum, excuse me. Which is why the mechanism of a plebiscite was chosen and approved by the Colombian legislature, which lowers the threshold to 13 percent, which is about 4.4 million voters, less than 10 percent of the Colombian population. And 50 percent of those 4.4 million have to approve the accord for the plebiscite to pass.

So you know, how much buy in that’s going to represent, I’m not sure. But that, I think, is the logic behind it. And the—you know, the FARC continues to say that they don’t want a plebiscite. They want a constituent assembly, that was given to the M-19 back in 1990s, assigned seats that they did not have to be elected for, while you kind of renegotiate the whole Colombian constitution. And that has been off the table for the government, but the opposition—Uribe and others—believe that, for different reasons, that there should be a constituent assembly, because they don’t like many aspects of what’s been negotiated at the table, not only transitional justice, but also the provisions for political participation. So you have kind of odd bedfellows. We’ll see what happens.

RESTREPO: And there may be other reasons—other constitutional prohibitions that Uribe and his ilk don’t like at the moment in Colombian politics that they might want to change at a constituent assembly. I think the most important—from a—you know, I’m not going to pretend to be a Colombian constitutional scholar—I think it would be quite detrimental to the political environment to not have a vote. It has been part of the construct all along, for all the reasons I stated earlier in terms of getting some popular buy-in going forward. I think it’s important to have. Obviously Colombia’s institutions will hash through this. And the constitution—and Colombia’s constitutional court has shown a fair amount of institutional valor on previous occasions. So I think there’s every reason to expect that, you know, they will do the right thing per the Colombian constitution. But as a political matter as an implementation reality, I think Colombia will be much better served with a vote than without one.

SKOL: Way back in the back.

Q: Rob Kushen from the Porticus Foundation.

If we look to the implementation phase, do any of you have advice as to what role a private funder can play in helping ensure the success of the peace process?

SKOL: Anyone?

ARNSON: I have one thought, which is to create sustainable, productive employment in rural areas, which means, starting with the market for certain products, and building the chains back to the producer, rather than beginning with the producer and hoping that there’s going to be, you know, a consumer or market on the other end. I think there are lots of opportunities and there are lots of people in the private sector in Colombia that are already involved in these kinds of initiatives. One classic example that comes to mind is a program in Cauca, which has also been—where Cali is located—which has been very hard-hit by the conflict. And it’s called VallenPaz. And it’s a sort of private sector, government, civil society, small farmer development.

RESTREPO: For fear of—actually, I won’t steal Bernie’s thunder. I’ll let you talk about demining.

ARONSON: OK, will I agree with Cindy on that. I would make one other suggestion, if it’s a question of mobilizing resources. We announced when President Santos was here, February 4th, that the United States and Norway are mobilizing a global effort to help Colombia rid itself of land mines by 2021. They have more land mines than any country in the world, except Afghanistan. And we need to get rid of them, not just to save lives, which is the first imperative, but to reclaim the rural farmland that they’re planted in. So that’s an ambitious goal, frankly. It’ll probably take about $350 million. U.S. and Norway initially pledged $50 million as our first-year commitment. But you know, you want to mobilize all your friends and make a contribution, you’ll do a lot of good for Colombia.

SKOL: I would add that the Colombian government has been very active in inviting organizations from civil society to think about how they could contribute to the—to the peace of Colombia. And there’s a lot of discussion going on inside Colombia. Some of it people want a little bigger part of the pie, and they want to see the pie expanded. But it is a conscious effort on the part of the Colombian government to engage civil society.


Q: Ivan Rebolledo.

 I had a question just to the three of you. What is the estimated price tag of—the multiyear price tag—of this peace process and reintegration? And in light of the economic maladies of the government right now, how feasible it is—is it for the government to cover these expenses? I know that President Santos was successful with a $450 million commitment from President Obama. Who else on the international stage is coming up to the plate and offering assistance, whether it be bilateral or multilateral?

ARNSON: Bernie, do you want to take that? I can jump in, but go ahead.

ARONSON: Sure. Did you ask me to answer?

ARNSON: Yeah, do you want to start, or?

ARONSON: Yeah. You know, I think the Colombians have put a total price tag of somewhere between $80 and $100 billion over 20 years, something like that. You know, to do what they’re trying to do is a radical transformation of their economics in a positive way. You know, to really bring the services of the state and infrastructure and credit and titles and land to the rural population. There’s a lot of efforts to help. The EU has set up a donor’s group. The World Bank has set up a donor’s group. The Inter-American Development Bank is financing a lot of infrastructure. You know, Cindy mentioned we’ve committed $450 million in the next fiscal year.

But you know, people’s memory is short and the caravan moves on. So in another couple of years, we won’t be talking about Colombia, but the need will still be there. So I think it’s something through whatever means we have—whether it’s through the U.S. government or institutions and multilaterals—need to try to mobilize these kinds of commitments as early as possible.

ARNSON: Go ahead.

RESTREPO: Yeah, I wanted to echo Bernie. I mean, the U.S.’s ability—kind of our body politics to declare victory and move on too soon is something that we need to be very aware of here. But also, for this audience, you know, in a few weeks I’m taking a group of business people down to Colombia. And one of the nice—one of the advantages Colombian has is it’s a good place to do business. It’s a good place to invest. And a decent amount of that nut will be taken up by, you know, productive private-sector investment. And one of the real challenges, I think, just is a math problem here in terms of what’s the price of this. And I made this point earlier. Most of this Colombia needs to do whether there’s an agreement or not, right? Extending the Colombian state into all parts of Colombia is a project worth doing whether you reach an agreement in Havana or you don’t reach an agreement in Havana.

And how much of it is actually marginal costs post-agreement is hard to specify. I think from a, you know, international assistance fundraising perspective it’s useful to have that construct, to use that construct to attract the kinds of institutions, the kinds of players Bernie was talking about. But a very big advantage that Colombia has here is that it has a robust economy that has proven more resilient today than a lot of the other commodity-dependent economies in South America, to put it mildly. And that will be part of the solution moving forward. They obviously have a huge fiscal hold because of the price of oil right now, which isn’t going to go—

SKOL: I’m afraid we’ve reached the end of time here. And on behalf of the Council, I would like to thank Cindy, Dan, and Bernie for their—sharing their expertise and their hopes for Colombia’s future. Thank you very much.

ARNSON: Thank you, Mike. Thank you, Bernie.


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