Colombia’s best chance for peace

Cuba's President Raul Castro, center, encourages Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left, and Commander the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, Timoleon Jimenez to shake hands, in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. In a joint statement, Santos and the FARC said they have overcome the last significant obstacle to a peace deal by settling on a formula to compensate victims and punish belligerents for human rights abuses. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

The world’s longest-running civil war may soon come to an end.

On Wednesday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos flew to Cuba to meet with Timoleon Jimenez, leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It was the first time the two men have stood together in the same room, and marks a massive step forward in a peace process that has dragged on for nearly three years so far.

Mr. Santos announced the Colombian government and FARC leaders had reached an agreement on how rebel soldiers would be treated by the justice system after disbanding.

Under the agreement, rebels would appear before a special tribunal. In exchange for cooperation and confession of crimes, those guilty of the most egregious offenses would serve up to eight years of community service in some degree of minimum security detention.

To many Colombians, that will undoubtedly be too lenient a punishment. FARC rebels have massacred hundreds of thousands and displaced perhaps millions of people during their 50-year fight against the Colombian government.

Other documented crimes include the use of child soldiers, widespread rape and sexual abuse, kidnapping, drug trafficking, extortion and violence against indigenous communities.

Those crimes cannot be taken lightly. But neither should they be allowed to scuttle the best chance for ending the conflict.

Formed in the vacuum created by a decade of a partisan political civil war that dominated the 1950s and early 1960s, the FARC initially represented a populist, communist-leaning defense of rural Colombians who had been forced off their land either by violence or aggressive industrial agricultural land-use policies.

By the 1980s they had largely devolved into a drug-trafficking terrorist organization. The cocaine boom made them the one of the most well-financed terrorist groups in the world, a distinction they still hold today.

But things have not been going as well for the FARC recently.

A merciless and controversial military campaign by former President Alvaro Uribe decimated their numbers.

The death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2013 also meant the loss of a significant source of financial support and political sanctuary. And Cuba’s opening to the United States, however slight, could prove a final nail in the coffin of Latin American radical communism.

But perhaps the most important factor in the decline of the FARC is the strengthening of the Colombian middle class.

After all, it’s much more difficult to recruit young men and women into a life of struggle and violence — and keep them there — when stable and relatively well-paying career opportunities are readily available. People with jobs, apartments and money to spend are infinitely less likely to risk it all on revolution than those living in desperate poverty.

That lesson is worth keeping in mind as the world’s democracies combat insurgent movements around the globe.

To be sure, Wednesday’s agreement does not bring an end to the conflict with the FARC. Accords must also be reached on how the FARC will demobilize and get rid of its weapons. Then the Colombian people must vote on whether or not to accept the peace deal before it becomes law, and their approval is far from certain.

Even if the peace process is successful, bringing guerrilla soldiers back into the fold of Colombian society will pose a significant challenge.

So will ongoing legal efforts to return stolen land and property to millions of internal refugees, many of whom have no documented proof of ownership or guarantee of safety should they return to their former homes.

The challenges are overwhelming, but so are the rewards.

Even in the face of ongoing violence, Colombia has gone from a near-failed state in the 1980s and 90s to Latin America’s fourth-largest economy today. Its success hinged on the strength of a stable democratic government and the sheer willpower of a fiercely optimistic, impossibly welcoming and hardworking population.

The United States has rightly celebrated the progress of one of its closest allies in Latin America, and it should continue to do so.

The FARC has no place in the new Colombia.

Its undoing could bring an era of hope and opportunity to millions who have strived for peace their entire lives.

There will be no mourning.

Ed Buckley, a Post and Courier editorial staffer, previously worked at The City Paper Bogota in Colombia’s capital.