CARTAGENA, Colombia — During an interview with President Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia to discuss the Oct. 2 referendum on the peace deal with the FARC guerrillas to end the country’s five-decade-old armed conflict, I took away four conclusions — including one that almost nobody in Colombia is talking about.
First, the peace agreement is neither the turning point in Colombia’s history that will lead to an era of prosperity nor a model to solve armed conflicts worldwide, as Santos says. It’s also not a catastrophic surrender to the rebels that will turn Colombia into a Venezuelan-styled radical socialist country, as critics say.
Rather, it will be a piece of paper signed Sept. 26 in this coastal city amid much pomp, which will result in the demilitarization of many — but not all — of the estimated 7,000 FARC guerrillas. Many FARC rebels will join the drug trafficking cartels, or change their uniforms for those of the ELN or other guerrilla groups.
Santos rejects the notion that many FARC members will join the drug cartels. He told me that, on the contrary, “now we can stop being the first world exporter of cocaine because one of the commitments they (the FARC) have made is to collaborate with the state to replace illegal crops with legal ones.” Santos’ critics say that is wishful thinking, and I agree.
Second, the Santos-backed vote in support of the peace agreement is likely to win the Oct. 2 referendum, which will set the peace deal in motion. Polls are already showing the pro-agreement vote ahead, and a barrage of government propaganda, with the extra weight of foreign leaders blessing the deals, will further bolster support for the agreement.
Santos critics say the referendum will be a sham, because the question the government will pose to voters is likely to produce a response in support of the deal. The referendum will ask voters whether they support the agreement to “end the conflict” and “for a stable and durable peace.” If voters were asked whether they support “the peace agreement with the FARC,” many more would vote no, critics say.
Third, FARC commanders accused of war crimes, such as kidnapping and enslaving children, will be subject to relatively mild sentences.
Critics such as the Human Rights Watch advocacy group and former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe have demanded that FARC rebels accused of war crimes serve time in jail. They say that, under the agreement, war criminals will be able to serve short sentences in comfortable settings, like golf courses.
Santos told me that FARC war criminals will serve five- to eight-year sentences “with an effective restriction on their freedom of movement.” He added that “it’s not a jail with bars, nor with a prison uniform,” but it won’t be on golf courses either.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, Colombia has become a one-issue country, in which the peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas has dominated the political and media agenda for the past three years. That may not change, because — even if the deal is approved — there will be daily disputes over its implementation.
My opinion: Whether you support or oppose the peace deal, Colombia should stop being a monothematic country. It should no longer allow the peace deal to overshadow other equally important issues, such as Colombia’s urgent need to diversify its economy and improve its education and innovation levels.
A recent study by the Inter-American Development Bank says 83 percent of Colombia’s exports are raw materials, and only 17 percent are manufactured goods. And while Israel and South Korea invest more than 4 percent of their gross domestic product in research and development, Colombia invests only 0.2 percent.
What’s worse, while the country has been focused on the peace process, funds for research and development have been cut.
Granted, reducing a decades-old armed conflict — I’m not using the word “ending,” because I’m afraid that would be too optimistic — is important. But diminishing Colombia’s dependence on raw materials and improving its education and innovation standards to export more expensive goods will be just as important to make the country grow and reduce poverty, and nobody here seems to be talking about that.