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The Hardest Part is Yet to Come for Colombia’s Peace Agreement

By Cristobal Vasquez

“The implementation of the accord will be more challenging than the peace negotiation with the FARC,” said Sergio Jaramillo, Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace. It is a worry shared by both Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) commanders and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos about the current stage in the peace process, spawned by the absence of money to finance the post-conflict initiatives, the threat of right-wing paramilitary groups to guerrillas and social activists, and the government’s lack of legitimacy and control over its territory. 

To implement the peace agreement and ensure a peaceful reintegration of 6,300 rebels into society, the government will need to spend approximately $30 billion over the next 10 years. However, Colombia does not have this money at hand and is far from finding the means to ensure a constant income for financing the post-conflict steps. In fact, right now, the government lacks the funds to cover its own fiscal deficit, which stands at 3.9 percent of its gross domestic product. In response, Santos and his majority in Congress approved a new tax reform, which, among other measures, increases consumer taxes to 19 percent, one of the highest in the region. Yet, despite the “structural” tax reform, as Minister of Finance Mauricio Cárdenas Santamaría likes to call it, the new revenue the government will be gathering from its citizens will focus on alleviating the fiscal deficit and maintaining the competitiveness of the country, leaving little money left over to realize the peace process. 

Due to these constraints, Colombia has limited ways to finance the peace deal. One option is the Plan Paz Colombia, a continuation of the Plan Colombia, a U.S.-funded policy to fight a war against drugs, the FARC, and other forms of terrorism. Another way is through international loans and future tax reforms. These are riskier financial solutions that often drive protests and popular unrest. 

Another threat to the implementation of the peace agreement is the continuing killings by right-wing paramilitary groups of social activists and left wing-politicians linked to the political group Marcha Patriótica. As pointed out by Nick Miroff, the Latin American correspondent for The Washington Post, one of the most frightening developments that can destroy the peace agreement in Colombia is the recent string of assassinations of human right advocates, indigenous leaders, and left-wing activists. More than 60 crimes and hundreds of threats have been attributed to right-wing terrorist groups such as the “Black Eagles” or the “Urabaeños,” previously considered paramilitary groups.

What’s more, because the government has little control over the rural areas where most of the FARC rebels will live as civilians, it is dubious that the guerrillas will give up their arms within six months. This void of government protection is an immense security challenge as it might allow new types of armed conflict to emerge in these parts of the country. Incidents from Colombia’s past draw troublesome parallels to today’s situation. In the 1980s, former guerrillas created a political party called Unión Patriótica, but were systematically killed by right-wing military groups connected to the government after they started winning local elections and gaining political power.

Added to the challenges facing the peace accord and its implementation, President Santos’ image and legitimacy have been struggling recently. According to a recent poll by Yanhaas, a regional polling firm, only 34 percent of Colombians approve of the work of President Santos and just 41 percent support the way the government has handled the peace negotiations with the FARC. 

Still, these numbers are high compared to Santos’ 18 percent approval rate in August 2016, serving as a reminder that people support the peace process but do not support Santos or his administration—even after he won the Nobel Peace Prize. In fact, regardless of political views, many Colombians associate Santos with inept bureaucracy and corruption—even more so after accusations were made against the president for receiving money from Odebrecht, a Brazilian multinational corporation, to finance his re-election campaign in exchange for multimillion-dollar public contracts.   

Paradoxically, President Santos’ signature on the peace agreement poses a risk to its implementation and to lasting peace. Colombia’s leader needs credibility to see the peace process through, and Santos’ unpopularity is compromising the nation’s ability to endure all the changes and challenges that will come with the post-conflict period. 

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Cristobal Vasquez is a Colombian-Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C. He works as a U.S. correspondent for Caracol Radio, Colombia’s most popular radio station. He has a Master of Public Administration from the London School of Economics. His work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, El Tiempo and World Policy Journal. Follow him on Twitter: @tobalvasquez

[Photo courtesy of Government of Chile]

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