Managing Partner, ACON Investments; Former Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, U.S. Department of State
Adjunct Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Bernard W. Aronson, managing partner of ACON Investments and former U.S. assistant secretary of state for inter-american affairs, joins CFR’s Matthew M. Taylor to discuss Colombia’s failed peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and its implications for the country’s future.
Matthew Taylor: Good morning, everyone. Thank you for joining us. I’m especially grateful to Bernie Aronson, the US Special Envoy, to talks between the Colombian government and the FARC Rebels for being here this morning with us. Mr. Aronson needs no introduction, but as many of you will know, he has had a distinguished career in both government and the private sector. He served as the US Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs under President Bush and President Clinton. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the State Department’s highest honor, and he is also a very successful entrepreneur playing a role at ACON as the founding partner, member of the general partners of the firm’s US and Latin American Private Equity Fund, and a principle of the US Funds. Without further ado, let us turn to the subject at hand, Colombia. It has been a very momentous two weeks. A peace deal was signed on September 26, a week before Sunday’s poll. All polls were pointing to a victory by the C and the Plebiscite and on Sunday, October 2, the No was victorious by around 60,000 votes, a very slim difference with about 63 percent of eligible voters abstaining. The victory by the Noes seemed to catch everyone by surprise including the No forces themselves. If this weren’t surprising enough, last night we had the momentous news of President Santos’ Nobel Prize. It’s been an incredible two-week ride. Please, Mr. Aronson, could you start us off by just telling us how we got here and the twists and turns of the last month.
Bernard Aronson: Well, I think you outlined them pretty well and you mentioned that the FARC and the government concluded this peace agreement in Havana, had a signing ceremony in Cartagena, then the vote, the summer side (ph 02:53) vote that President Santos said promised by a narrow margin, but the majority rejected the agreement, and now you saw this Nobel Peace Prize announcement. This has been a roller coaster for a number of years and the roller coaster continues. How this all plays out remains to be determined, but clearly there’s a new political reality in Colombia. To his credit, President Santos immediately accepted the results of the plebiscite and it’s noted that the Colombia’s Constitution and Colombia’s law he had no obligation to put this agreement to a plebiscite, and none of the previous peace settlements in Colombia had been put to a plebiscite, but he felt that this had to be a fully democratic process and therefore scheduled this vote. He has reached out to the No opponents and invited them for a conversations including with former President Uribe. What I think the government has urged is that a dialog take place with all of the sectors and groups within the country that include the representatives of the No Campaign to see if they could reestablish a consensus behind an agreement that would be acceptable broadly to the population and acceptable to the FARC and that work has just begun. It’s way too early to say how that all will play out. You know, Colombians narrowly voted to reject the agreement, but Colombians did not vote to go back to war, this agreement about how to make the peace, not whether to make the peace. The hopeful sign, all parties, the government, the FARC and President Uribe’s constituents and he, himself, immediately called for maintaining the cease fire with this currently in place. Nobody was grabbing sabers. Everybody talked about a national dialog and the FARC I think is willing to listen to proposals from such a dialog. I was just down in Havana along with the government, the UN and others. We have to see that the table has been set. We’ll have to see what is placed on the table.
Matthew Taylor: Indeed. As you pointed in your comments, Santos has reached out to a broad range of political actors at this website. He and former President Uribe met for the first time since 2010. It appears that they’ve agreed to further talks. He also met with former President Pastrana. Could you tell us a little bit about how this changes the negotiations and what the demands become from the opponents of the plebiscite, how they can find common ground with Santos?
Bernard Aronson: Well, I mean it changes the process because there are more parties sitting at the table. I think that all the supporters of the peace process were concerned for some time that there was still deep division within Colombia about the terms of the agreement. President Uribe has expressing those concerns for some time and I think everybody agreed that if there was an opportunity to broaden the base and the consensus behind the agreement, that would be a good thing for the peace process that would allow the peace accords to be implemented without making it into a political issue or becoming the centerpiece of the 2018 campaign. It’s a challenge to all the parties to see if they can find common ground. They say common ground but so far everybody says that’s their goal. Like I said, we’ll have to see how this process unfolds.
Matthew Taylor: Indeed. On the FARC side, you mentioned that the FARC negotiators suggested that they were open to further negotiations. What is the prospect for the FARC if a no-peace deal is reached? They currently are in a limbo between demobilization and the jungle. The question I guess is, what sort of concessions would they be able to make and are they ready to return or able to return to current status?
Bernard Aronson: Well, I just want to clarify one statement you made where they said they were open to negotiations. What they said they’re open to listening to also some national dialog. I don’t want to speak for either the FARC or the No Campaign about what are the issues that will be on the table. That’s for the Colombians to decide in this dialog. President Uribe has voiced a number concerns about justice issues, about the level and the rights of the FARC to political participation. I think he has some concerns about some of the procedural mechanisms that were embodied in the agreement such as fast-track approval and certain Presidential executive authority. It’s really up to the parties to define what issues are paramount and what solutions they would propose. It is up to the FARC to signal what they will be open to and what they will not be. This is a process and I suspect that views will evolve to the process. I think it’s premature for anybody outside the process to define what the positions will be by the parties.
Matthew Taylor: One of the constraints to the process had been the setting of a very tight deadline of October 31 for reaching some sort of a deal. It appears that that may be flexible. Do you have any observations on that?
Bernard Aronson: Who set that deadline? What are you referring to?
Matthew Taylor: The news reports have suggested that there was a deadline of October 31 for reaching a new deal. More recently in the last day it seems as though Santos has hinted that that deadline could be extended.
Bernard Aronson: I think that was a statement about how long the cease fire was lasting but the government clarified that the Minister of Defense spoke to that and in fact, the FARC and the government issued a joint declaration in Havana just now about the cease fire and I don’t think any such deadline exists for the negotiations. You know, clearly Colombians would like to see this move forward in a reasonable way and I think UN want to see a political process underway to resolve the current divisions in order to maintain their crisis but I don’t think any of the parties have set a deadline for either the negotiations or for the end of the cease fire.
Matthew Taylor: In recent days, the pressure on Voyartin (ph 10:29) there have been press reports of other possible ways forward that would not go through the peace talks in Havana. Perhaps the constituent assembly or passing a peace accord through Congress. More recently there was a suggestion of ratifying a peace accord through popular signatures. Do you have any observations about those alternative forms of resolving it?
Bernard Aronson: Well, I think that’s putting the cart before the horse. The question right now is can the government and the No forces and other sectors in Colombian society including the victims which have been in the center of the negotiations, can they come up with a national consensus and find common ground with the FARC. Until that happens it’s premature to speculate how such a national agreement would be approved, but I don’t think that’s the problem that Colombia faces. I think the issue is how to bridge these differences.
Matthew Taylor: That’s very interesting when you use the term “national consensus.” In all of the focus on the plebiscite, I guess most of the focus has been on the relationship between the Santos government and FARC leaders, but there of course other illegal arms groups in Colombia beyond the FARC. I wonder, the ELN had declared a unilateral cease fire. This week it resumed attacks on pipelines. I’m wondering if you see that there’s space to broaden that national consensus to other groups.
Bernard Aronson: Well, I think the ELN was very close to joining the talks. They too now see a new reality but that’s an opportunity for Colombians potentially if this national dialog that move forward in a constructive way that substantially bring in the ELN as well would certainly be an ideal solution to have both a national consensus on the terms of an agreement and have both guerilla forces a part of it. Because that’s a possibility but again, that will depend how the parties proceed in this effort but that would be an ideal solution clearly.
Matthew Taylor: Let me ask you the breaking news, of course, of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to President Santos. Do you think that this changes the calculus in any way or the domestic politics?
Bernard Aronson: You know, I don’t really want to speak to that. That’s up to the Colombians how they incorporate that into their thinking. It’s not for the media to say.
Matthew Taylor: Well, I know that we’ll have many questions from the audience. We have a very full conference call today but let me finish but just asking you about the role that the US has played and what role you see the US government playing in the negotiations going forward.
Bernard Aronson: The US has played a role because President Santos asked President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry several years ago for us to become more engaged and I was appointed by the President and the Secretary as a result of that. We’re not parties to the negotiation. We don’t sit in on the negotiations directly. We’ve tried to be of help sometimes to the parties to interpret each other’s views and concerns. We sometimes find processes or mechanisms to resolve difficult issues but we’re not sitting at the table. Maybe being a troubleshooter would be a better explanation but if President Santos wants us to continue in that role, we certainly are prepared to do so.
Matthew Taylor: Well, thank you and I know that you have been traveling back and forth so thank you for your service. Let me open the floor now. I will let the conference moderators take calls.
Operator: Thank you. At this time we will open the floor for your questions. If you would like to ask a question, please press the * key followed by the 1 key on your touchtone phone now. Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received. If at any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, just press *2. Again, to ask a question, please press *1 now. Thank you. We now have our first question coming from Michael Skol from Skol and Serna. Please go ahead.
Michael Skol: I know that Bernie didn’t want to answer any questions about the Nobel Peace Prize, but I thought I would add my own comments. Knowing Colombians and Colombia very well, it strikes me that the Nobel Peace Prize announcement is going to hurt any negotiations amongst the various parties because Colombians are not going to take very well to an outside agency telling them that a majority of their voters were wrong. I think the timing of this was unfortunate and it’s going to hurt the process. I would ask Bernie if he agrees, but I know he would rather not comment on that.
Bernard Aronson: You’re correct.
Operator: Thank you. Our next question will come from Tracy Wilkinson from the Los Angeles Times.
Tracy Wilkinson: Thank you. Hi, Bernie. Well, I have a similar question. You may not want to talk about it but the previous questioner said this might hurt the process when I think most analysts would say this could actually strengthen Santos’ hand and maybe give emphasis to the peace process. Do you want to say anything at all, please could maybe help us analyze? Also, if you had any thoughts on why the FARC didn’t share in the prize?
Bernard Aronson: You know, I don’t want to speculate on why and how the Nobel Peace Prize Committee decided to give the prize. Obviously it’s their decision. You need to ask them about how they structured their decision. As far as the impact on the process, those who support and voted yes will probably be energized by it. Those who voted no will probably not change their views about the agreement but it’s a great honor for President Santos and the White House is going to issue a statement which I would urge you to read.
Tracy Wilkinson: Okay, thank you.
Operator: Thank you. Our next question comes from Stephen Krasner from Stanford University.
Stephen Krasner: Hi, Bernie. Thanks for taking the time. Why was the turnout so low in the vote?
Bernard Aronson: You know it’s a good question. It was a non-Presidential year and just like in our own vote off year elections tend to be lower turnout. In the Atlantic Coast there was widespread flooding and devastation from Hurricane Matthew which clearly kept many votes from being counted or expressed. Then there may have been a phenomenon that the polls were so positive in the days leading up to the vote suggesting 65 percent for the yes vote that some yes votes stayed home just assuming it was in the bag and didn’t turn out. It’s impossible. When the margin is as small as it is, 26,000 votes would have changed the outcome if you could attribute the outcome to lots of different factors. I think some of the ones I mentioned could have been at play.
Stephen Krasner: Thank you.
Operator: Thank you. Our next question comes from Oliver Chaplin from University of Denver.
Oliver Chaplin: Hi. Thanks so much for your remarks. I’m not sure if you’re going to be willing to answer this question, but do you see any areas of possible consensus to try to reach an agreement realizing that they’ve spent four years trying to hammer out some very detailed terms? Thank you.
Bernard Aronson: Well, all I can say is that there’s been a real express by all the parties to engage in the dialog on these issues. That’s the first step and that’s a good sign. I don’t think you can speculate about whether that will achieve some sort of a consensus that will allow the agreement to move forward with a broader level of support, but that’s clearly the goal and the object of this exercise. Let’s hope that all the Colombians who are part of this dialog will try to find a principled way to come together. I don’t think it’s impossible. It’s not necessarily an easy task but at least they’re engaging in a dialog and Santos and Uribe have had a face-to-face meeting. We’re going to have to just take this step-by-step.
Operator: Thank you. Our next question comes from Yvonne Vela from W Radio.
Yvonne Vela: Yes, hello, Mr. Aronson. What do you think should be the priority of President Juan Manuel Santos in the Peace Agreement after the recent events?
Bernard Aronson: Well I think maybe what his priorities which is to listen to the voices of the No vote to carry on this national dialog to try to see if the Colombians can come together behind the new consensus. That’s what he has said his priority is and that seems to have been well received by the other parties.
Operator: Thank you. Our next question comes from Valentina Pasquale from moneylaundering.com.
Valentina Pasquale: Hi and thank you for the call. I was wondering what the discussion has been thus far on the FARC’s possibly illicit access and where it might go from here?
Bernard Aronson: Well, the agreement as you know, the FARC has to sever all of its relationships with narco trafficking. It has to go before the tribunals and confess all of their activities in this area. That would obviously include money laundering or any of those associated issues. If they would fail to do so, they would have to go to criminal justice for up to 20 years under the current agreement. But clearly, one of the benefits of these, if it can be achieved, is to remove this group and hopefully others from narco trafficking and allow the government and the armed forces and the police to focus on the remaining back ream (ph 21:41) and organized criminal bands.
Operator: Thank you. Our next question comes from Ivan Rebolledo from Paranova Strategic Partners.
Ivan Rebolledo: Good morning. This morning, the Colombian journalists said something very pissy which I’ll share with all of you. “Gabo won the Nobel for Macondo and Santos for attempting to govern it.” Bernie, I wanted to ask you President Santos has been extremely successful in galvanizing their national community to support this peace process, but this criticism that nationally, particularly at the departmental level if coordinators weren’t as successful as they should have been. Could you comment a little about the process internally and how effective you think the government was in this pursuit? Thank you.
Bernard Aronson: You know, I think that’s up to the Colombians to judge. It’s not the role of the United States to make a judgment about how any sides conducted its campaign.
Operator: Thank you. Our next question comes from Alexander Watson from Sylvan Company.
Alexander Watson: Good afternoon or good morning, Bernie.
Bernard Aronson: Hi.
Alexander Watson: A quick question for you. The opposition manifested mostly chiefly by President Uribe has included in some context at least according to the press at whole, a wide series of objections to the deal that was cut between the government and the FARC, not simply the treatment of the FARC leaders and the question of stipends, but FARC people that have gotten most of the play. But also concerns about the land reform programs that’s included in the agreement, as well as even some other issues that have appeared like abortion and things like that. I wonder if any of those things appear to be salient in the discussions at this point as far as you can tell?
Bernard Aronson: The discussions have really just begun, so I think it’s impossible to say what will be the core issues that the opposition will focus on and what changes that they wish to see. This dialog has really just begun. The parties have sat down I think once or twice maybe. I think it’s way too early to say, and I would not presume to speak for the No forces about what their priorities are. I think that will be defined as this dialog goes forward.
Operator: Thank you. Again, if anyone would like to ask a question, please press *1 on our touchtone phones now. Our next question comes from Michelle Benson from Harvard Divinity School.
Michelle Benson: Hi, thank you for being here. My question is how much does a sustainable peace actually hinge on these peace agreements and what’s really at stake in terms of a sustainable peace here?
Bernard Aronson: I’m not sure if I understand your question. Can you repeat it?
Michelle Benson: Yeah, sure. It seems that both parts and President Santos have agreed to maintain a cease fire. I guess I’m wondering how long does a cease fire and attainable peace remain during these negotiations? How much is at stake right here during this conference?
Bernard Aronson: That’s a very important question and the answer is nobody knows. Right now all the parties including the No forces and voice their strong support for maintaining the cease fire. The UN monitoring and oversight mission is still intact in the country. Nobody is rattling favors and that’s a good thing. Everybody is trying to maintain the cease fire but action momentum in the peace process, it’s an open question about how long that can all hold together. I don’t want to speculate about how or why things could disintegrate but clearly the sooner these issues can be resolved the better it is for maintaining the cease fire.
Michelle Benson: Thank you.
Operator: Thank you. Again, as a reminder, *1 to ask a question. Our next question will come from Martha Avila from RCN TV Colombia.
Martha Avila: Mr. Aronson, I would like to know your opinion on the Nobel Peace Prize of President Santos, and how do you explain that this award has no tincture (ph 26:19) with the leader of the FARC, Timochenko?
Bernard Aronson: The White House is putting out a statement they have from the Ambassador and the President already about the peace prize. I would direct you look at that in terms of the US government’s position, and as I said before, it’s not for the United States to speculate or judge how the Nobel Peace Prize Committee decided who should receive the prize with the respect to the decision, and the President is going to speak to that in a statement.
Matthew Taylor: Matthew Taylor jumping in here. If I might, could you speak a little bit about what was the role of other countries, especially Latin American countries, for regional organizations in the first set of organizations and whether you think that will change now?
Bernard Aronson: Well, as you know, Cuba and Norway have served as the host and guarantor countries from the start of the process including the secret negotiations leading up to the start of the formal negotiations. I think they played a very important role and have been given a lot of credit for their role as hosts, but also as guarantors and advisors to the parties. The UN is playing an increasing role in the establishment of an oversight mechanism to oversee disarmament and that was scheduled to begin five days after the plebiscite, had the plebiscite been successful. The international community has been extremely active as you know. The US has a special envoy, so this is the German government and others have been sources of significant resources from a number of countries from the EU. Secretary Kerry has organized a global coalition to help Colombia remove its landmines and he co-chaired with the Norwegian Foreign Minister at the United Nations General Assembly, a donor’s conference in which $105 million was raised to help Colombia meet its goal under the Ottawa Convention to remove all its land mines by 2021.
Of course the Security Council passed two resolutions unanimously creating the UN mission down there. I think the level of engagement by the international community has been very high and the unity of the international community at a time when many crises are so divisive and hard to support because of those divisions. I think Colombia has garnered uniquely strong international support. I think that based on the statements that other governments have made and agencies like the UN and OAS have made, I think that will continue.
Matthew Taylor: Certainly. Let me ask you just a procedural question that arose in listening to your responses. I know that you said that the two sides have only sat down once or twice this time around, but do you have a sense of whether they will start afresh or use the old DOS as a base for moving forward?
Bernard Aronson: I can’t say. I think some things in the current agreement are not very controversial like the joint efforts to find the remains of Colombians who have disappeared during the war and their bodies have never been found by their families. There’s joint efforts to remove landmines are underway already. There’s efforts to substitute illicit crops for cocoa production. Again, it’s up to the Colombians to decide how wide this dialog will range but certainly some areas of agreement seem to be less controversial than others.
Matthew Taylor: Thank you. I’ll open it up, I know there are some more questions.
Operator: Thank you. We now have a follow-up question coming from Yvonne Vela from W Radio.
Yvonne Vela: Yes Mr. Aronson. I would like to know what do you expect from the meeting between John Kerry and Senator Alvaro Uribe?
Bernard Aronson: The meeting? What meeting are you referring to?
Yvonne Vela: There’s going to be a meeting between them. John Kerry recently announced that there’s going to be a meeting. I wanted to know if you have more information and what do you expect from that meeting?
Bernard Aronson: I think your information may be incorrect. I don’t think any such meeting has been announced. The United States maintains a regular and ongoing dialog with Central Democrat senior leaders. Ambassador Whitaker has met with them on a regular basis and continues to do so. We have very open communication with the CD.
Operator: Thank you. Our next question comes Lucia Leal from EFE.
Lucia Leal: Hi. Thank you. The White House has said that the plan Peace Colombia will go forward even after the No vote, but I wanted to know if funds were contingent on a peace deal being approved? I just wanted to know for it to go forward for these funds to be disbursed will a new peace deal have to be.
Bernard Aronson: A new what?
Lucia Leal: A new peace deal.
Bernard Aronson: Some of the funds that were on the Paz Colombia’s ongoing efforts in the United States has been engaging for a long time to support rural redevelopment and lands for compasinos and infrastructure and security and justice reform. Those are ongoing programs. I think the administration is hopeful that this new process will be successful and that the support for Paz Colombia can move forward as intended and that’s certainly our hope.
Operator: Thank you. At this time I’m showing no further questions.
Matthew Taylor: Well let me conclude then. I want to thank Special Envoy Aronson for taking time in the midst of what must be a very busy time. You have been very generous and insightful. Thank you very much and I know everybody on the line will join me in thanking you for joining us on this CFR call on the Colombian situation.
Bernard Aronson: Well, thank you, I appreciate it.
Matthew Taylor: Thanks very much.
Bernard Aronson: Okay.
Operator: Thank you ladies and gentlemen. This concludes today’s teleconference. You may now disconnect.