5 Lessons Central America Offers Colombia’s Peace Process

If Central America’s lessons are not learned Colombia will be mired in structural poverty and violence and endemic corruption.

By Hector Perla

El Salvador marked the 24th anniversary since the signing of its peace agreement ended the country’s civil war on Jan. 16. Later this year, Guatemala will celebrate on Dec. 29, 20 years since its peace accords, while on June 26 Nicaragua will mark 26 years since the end of the Contra War. Looking forward, there are lessons that can be gained from the Central American experiences to help improve the quality of the post-war era that is likely coming to Colombia in the near future.

Given the steady progress toward a peace settlement between the FARC and the Colombian government in the last few years, it is important that we look back on the lessons that the Central American peace processes hold for the South American nation. Most observers have focused on the lessons to be gleaned for improving the agreements themselves. However, Central America’s most important lessons are found not in how to better end the armed conflict, but rather in how to improve the post-civil war peace.

Of the three conflicts mentioned above, the Salvadoran Civil War is the most similar to the current situation in Colombia. Thus, I will draw lessons primarily from that experience, and include examples drawn from the other two cases as well. In particular there are five major lessons that the end of armed conflicts in Central America hold for the future and quality of post-war peace in Colombia.

1. Peace Doesn’t Eliminate Poverty

First, no matter how well crafted a peace agreement, it is no guarantee that poverty will be eliminated or even decrease; only the right government policies can do that. Likewise, democracy doesn’t automatically eliminate inequality. We can see these illustrated throughout the 1990s and early 2000s in all three of post-peace Central American nations. As right-wing governments implemented neoliberalism and then restructured their economies along the lines of free market orthodoxy, neither of these two problems were solved. While post-war economic growth did lead to some decline in poverty in these countries, much of that decline was in fact due to the rapid growth of remittances from Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants in the United States.

Meanwhile inequality continued to have a disastrous effect on a region already known to have among the most unjust distributions in the world. In this sense, Colombia is much more similar to Central America than it is to many of its Andean and Southern Cone countries of South America. According to data from the World Bank, as of 2012, Colombia was the eighth most unequal country in the world (Honduras fifth and Guatemala 10th) as measured by GINI Coefficient. If this socioeconomic exclusion persists in post-conflict Colombia, the country is likely to face the same kinds of drug and crime problems that Central America’s Northern Triangle countries have experienced. In particular, Colombia like Central America has a large segment of its population that is already at-risk (urban poor, landless campesinos, Afro and Indigenous communities, internally displaced) for forced displacement (immigration), and crime (either resorting to it or as targets of it). According to a USAID report, “Colombia has one of the highest rates of internal displacement in the world. There are over 3 million officially registered Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), though humanitarian groups estimate the actual number to be as high as 5 million.”

Additionally, the high levels of violence and brutality of the Colombia’s internal conflict has been much more akin to the Guatemalan and Salvadoran Civil Wars than to the lower levels in Nicaragua, and it has been ongoing for much longer. Like the death squad terror against poor communities in Central America, violence by paramilitaries against community activists and leaders in Colombia have sown fear and destroyed civil society networks that leave a void in the postwar period that is most likely filled by criminal elements. Unless a deliberate process of government sponsored restoration of civic associations is cultivated, as in Nicaragua through FSLN-sponsored Citizens’ Power Councils (Consejos de Poder Ciudadanos – CPCs), the fear and mistrust generated by the years of armed conflict and persecution of civil society actors is likely to remain and provide fertile ground where criminal elements can recruit and fill the vacuum.

2. Beware Structural Changes That Lock Out Progressive Reform

One of the most insidious strategies deployed by right-wing Central American parties to maintain their stranglehold on power in the wake of their country’s peace settlements was through legal frameworks. In the immediate aftermath of the peace accords, right-wing parties held vast numerical advantages in Central American parliaments, and they passed major pieces of legislation that changed the direction of their country, sometimes virtually locking in place usually neoliberal reforms that would require super-majorities for the left to change. In El Salvador, the classic example of this is the “Amnesty Law” that was passed by the Legislative Assembly shortly after the accords were signed. In essence, it has prohibited anyone responsible for gross human rights violations from being held responsible or prosecuted for their crimes. This has resulted in impunity for even the most egregious human rights violations committed during its civil war.

Later, once the first elections were held and the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front – FMLN) deputies first held elected positions in the Legislative Assembly, the right wing continued to maneuver effectively as the left gained their “sea-legs” in institutional politics. In the very first vote of the new National Assembly with the FMLN fully participating, seven of its 21 legislative deputies defected from the party in exchange for positions in the legislative leadership. This defection allowed ARENA to ram through the neoliberalization of the Salvadoran economy in what was known as the “Pacto de San Andres.” These reforms included the privatization of state-owned enterprises, the implementation and later increases of the regressive value added, or sales tax, and the elimination of protective tariffs on imported goods. Even more tragically for El Salvador, the Francisco Flores-led ARENA Administration managed to maneuver enough legislative votes to get rid of the national currency and dollarize the Salvadoran economy. As a result, the Salvadoran government does not have any control over its own monetary policy to improve the country’s economic situation.

Unfortunately, a similar process has already begun unfolding in Colombia. For example, the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (Free Trade Act) went into effect in May 2012. The agreement locks Colombia into reducing its tariffs over the next 10 years and effectively eliminates nearly all tariffs after that time. Obviously, this was done without the participation of the FARC and will be incredibly hard to reverse even if: the peace agreement is signed, the FARC do well in elections, or even if they eventually achieve electoral success at the presidential level. Essentially, Colombian elites are willing to sign the peace agreement because they believe that they’ve already have tied any future government’s hands, specifically concerning what they care about most the structure and orientation of the Colombian economy.

Likewise, in rural areas the government’s neoliberal policies have exacerbated already abhorrent concentration of arable land. The USAID reports that, “Land distribution in Colombia is highly inequitable, with an estimated 0.4 percent of the population owning 62 percent of the country’s best land … Unequal land distribution has been further supported by tax incentives and government subsidies that encourage the well-off to retain agricultural land even if they do not utilize it efficiently. Agricultural land is also acquired and held as a means of laundering drug money. Incentives to hold agricultural land have contributed to high land prices unrelated to the land’s agricultural value … From the early 1980s to 2000, armed groups acquired approximately 4.5 million hectares of land, or roughly 50 percent of the country’s most fertile land.”

Reversing these policies and recovering land for internally displaced communities will present an incredible challenge in the post-conflict period. It is highly improbable that the rural populations displaced to the city by the armed conflict would return to their homes without strong incentives from the government. But it also represents a strong potential site for political organizing and mobilization around issues where the FARC and sympathetic rural social movements have historically been strong.

3. Democracy Doesn’t Depolarize Society or Eliminate Corruption

Another clear lesson from the end of the Central American conflicts is that both political polarization and corruption are likely to persist in the post-war era. Moreover, the myth of the free press as a defender of democracy will be debunked as oligarchic media conglomerates deploy their vast resources against the FARC even in it’s legal political form. In El Salvador the mainstream media has maintained a continuous attack against the FMLN since its transition from guerrilla army to a political party. But in the early years after the peace agreement there were more direct attacks against the FMLN in the form of assassinations of party leaders (Comandante Mario Lopez) and militants (including youth activists like my friend Josue Franco) and assassination attempts against others (Comandante Nidia Diaz). In subsequent years the FMLN had to confront well-funded national and international fear campaigns that included the support of such international figures as Jeb Bush, Elliot Abrams, Otto Reich, and Republican Congressional Representatives Tom Tancredo (Colo.), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), and Lincoln Diaz-Balart (Fla.). In 2004 (and again in 2009 with much less success) the Salvadoran press began carrying news amplifying the threats these Republican operatives were making. In essence their message “warned Salvadoran voters that a victory by the left-wing opposition party, the FMLN, would result in their U.S.-based relatives being deported and their remittances being cut off” and even of being politically and economically isolated like Cuba. This campaign had a tremendous impact especially in the lead up to the vote and the FMLN’s candidate, former guerrilla commander Schafick Handal, was defeated despite an early lead in the polls. The effect of the fear campaign was to drive scared voters massively to the voting booth. So despite winning twice as many votes as the previous presidential winner had received, Handal still lost by a margin of over 10 percent.

When the FMLN finally won the presidency in 2009 they inherited a nearly bankrupt government with huge debts, unfinished infrastructure projects, and few and sources of revenue.

4. End of the War Doesn’t Mean the End of Violence

One of the cruelest lessons of the post-war era in Central America is that ending the armed conflicts doesn’t necessarily mean that the country will return to peace. Tragically, the levels of violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador) have reached pandemic proportions. Homicide rates in these three countries have persistently been among the highest in the world, often topping the list in per capita terms for countries not at war. While a confluence of factors come together to explain this horrible trend, one of the most fundamental is the reality that all post-conflict countries share: generations of young people (mostly men) who grew up knowing only war, trained and well-versed in killing. When this was combined with the lack of remunerative legal economic activities in a neoliberalized economy and the strong presence of a highly lucrative, illicit coca-based economy (production and trafficking), the prevalence of guns, and the U.S. funded war on drugs, it created a ticking time bomb. Unfortunately, it has already exploded in Central America, as the brief window of time to prevent its devastating repercussions in the postwar period closed rapidly around the start of the new millennium.

Colombia is no different.

It faces all the same challenges Central America confronted. Its advantages include a more diversified economy and more economic resources to address these issues. However, even in Central America a lack of resources was not ever really the true story. Rather it has always been about a lack of political will to redistribute some of the wealth these societies derive from their abundant resources to the benefit of the historically excluded, marginalized, and vulnerable populations. In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, Colombia needs to restructure its economy to ensure the government pours resources into crime prevention rather than punishment, rehabilitation of ex-offenders instead of repression of criminals, investment in youth not incarceration of gang-members, and universal education to replace systematic stratified exclusion.

As the FMLN government in El Salvador has found in its time in office, righting the ship of 20 years of neoliberal neglect is a herculean task, especially without even a simple majority in the legislative assembly. Moreover, the current Sanchez Ceren administration faces staunch opposition from a conservative Supreme Court that has overturned several of its revenue generating progressive taxation reforms, which were designed to fund social spending to improve education, health care, and crime prevention.

In the meantime, the right-wing – including the ARENA party, Salvadoran Foundation for Social and Economic Development (FUSADES) the major right-wing think tank, National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP), and media conglomerates – have launched a destabilization campaign against the FMLN government. This includes scapegoating, sensationalization, and deliberate exaggeration of gangs’ power to make the government appear incompetent, distract attention from organized crime elements and cartels tied to the right wing, and encourage fear among the populace to generate support for militarized response against poor youth involved in gangs. The Salvadoran Supreme Court has gone so far as to legally classify the gangs as terrorist organizations.

A similar phenomenon likely awaits Colombia. Indeed, the process is well under way with the infamous BACRIM (criminal bands), which arose after the demobilization of paramilitary forces. While the paramilitaries were often known to be allied with and work with the Colombian Armed Forces and police, at least tacitly, Alvaro Uribe’s administration deployed the BACRIM label to create a perception that they were not paramilitaries or connected to state security forces. However, although the term is now used to describe all non-guerrilla armed actors in Colombia, almost all the BACRIM have their origins in paramilitary organizations. Yet, the connections to state forces and powerful elite interests is now increasingly glossed over, and thus allow oligarchs to wash their hands of their criminal activities.

5. US Funded the Wars, But Not the Peace

Lastly, one of the saddest and most unjust tragedy’s in Central America’s postwar era is the role of U.S. foreign policy. While the Reagan and Bush Administrations funneled billions of dollars to fund the wars on the isthmus, in the wake of peace the Clinton and (second) Bush Administrations drastically reduced the amount of aid flowing in to pay for peace, reconstruction, and democratization. Similarly, the Obama Administration has been extremely slow to provide assistance and it wasn’t until the Central American child refugee crisis forced his hand that he developed the Alliance for Prosperity, although this plan has much to be criticized. Much of the funding to Central America has been toward the Central American Regional Security Initiative, a counternarcotics police and military training program that extends the War on Drugs to Central America.

Moreover, Obama’s stepped up deportation raids campaign against Central American immigrant families adds further fuel to the fire. Not only is the Administration sending these families back to danger, but decreasing the levels of much needed remittances and depriving many of the hope for a better future.

But this is nothing new.

While the Obama Administration has set the record for deportations, historically, all the U.S. Administrations throughout the 1990s and 2000s continued mass deportation of Central Americans, including the deportation of formerly incarcerated youth and gang members.

Tragically we’re reaping the blowback from this misguided policy today with the proliferation of youth gangs throughout Central America. Many of the young men originally deported beginning in the mid-1990s had lived almost their entire lives in the United States since being brought to the U.S. by their parents fleeing the war. Growing up in U.S. inner cities at the height of the crack epidemic, many gravitated toward gangs and selling drugs and were eventually incarcerated. Many were deported speaking no Spanish, having no memory of their home country, little or no family to help them on arrival, and landed in countries that were ripe for the spread of gangster culture among disaffected and marginalized youth with little future economic and life prospects.

Banner agreement justice Unfortunately for Colombia most of the conditions that plagued Central America in the postwar period are also present in that South American nation. These problems cast a long, haunting shadow over the prospects for peace – at least for a peace that will also lead to a significant improvement in the quality of life for Colombians.

At the same time, there are few signs that the role of the United States government will be any different in the Colombian case than it has been in Central America.