For Colombia, a flawed peace is better than war

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On Oct. 2, Colombians will vote on whether to approve or reject a flawed peace agreement reached by the government and the FARC narco-terror group.

While generally praised by the international community for his efforts to secure peace for Colombia, President Juan Manuel Santos has been criticized by some for investing virtually all of his energy into securing an agreement, while deprioritizing important challenges such as tax reform, poverty and corruption that have undermined Colombia’s competitiveness and growth.

In effect, Santos has wagered too much of Colombia’s interest on a peace deal, forcing government negotiators to grant many costly concessions. The lack of jail time for war criminals, the inclusion of special economic benefits to demobilized guerrillas not available to law-abiding citizens and the granting of automatic congressional seats to a FARC political party make this deal unacceptable to many Colombians who have suffered from the FARC’s 50-year terror campaign.

The criticisms of the agreement and of Santos’ handling of the process are well deserved; but the consequences of rejecting the agreement are just as unacceptable.

If rejected, years of negotiations will have been wasted, and the country will face a return of war and of a host of economic and societal problems largely ignored by the government – all without the international goodwill and financial support which the peace process has garnered.

The Colombian opposition argues that rejecting the agreement does not mean a return to war but, rather, a return to the negotiating table where the government and FARC leaders will fix the problematic elements of the agreement. However, after years of turbulent negotiations that nearly collapsed on multiple occasions, it is hard to believe that the FARC will react to the agreement’s rejection with a gracious return to the negotiating table, knowing that the goal would be an agreement that includes jail time or less generous political and economic concessions.

For all its faults, the agreement to end the conflict will provide opportunity for renewed economic growth and stability for Colombia that was previously unavailable. The government will be able to extend its presence into previously ungoverned spaces, allowing the private sector to regain safe access to and develop natural resources which will foster growth for the country. The end of the conflict will also attract renewed foreign investment crucial to stimulating the economy.

If this agreement is not approved, these opportunities will likely remain unavailable for years to come.

At the same time, Santos and others should be wary of overselling the benefits of the agreement with predictions of dramatic economic growth and social progress to an already skeptical public that has too often felt the sting of false promises.

The end of the conflict with the FARC removes a great barrier to growth, but it will not automatically give Colombia the capacity to take advantage of it.

A weak government presence, outdated investment and tax codes, deep societal and economic divisions, corruption and criminality will remain after the agreement and must be addressed before Colombia can take full advantage of the opportunity presented by peace.

Indeed, the biggest challenges of the process will come after the agreement, when Colombia must address these issues throughout the country, including in areas that have largely been left to fend for themselves.

While the conflict with the FARC would end, remaining organized criminal elements such as the ELN and BACRIM will still be a source of violence that will continue to require significant attention and resources to combat.

The potential of FARC's narcotrafficking element infiltrating Colombian politics remains a serious concern and brings back unpleasant memories of Pablo Escobar’s corrupting political involvement, leaving many with the fear that FARC’s political leadership will take Colombia down the same road as Nicolás Maduro has in Venezuela.

To prevent history from repeating itself, the Colombian government will have to be vigilant in ensuring that the vast wealth the FARC has derived from narcotrafficking does not find its way into the political campaigns of its candidates and that criminal entities do not reoccupy the space left after demobilization.

However, we should also have enough confidence in democracy and the Colombian people to believe that when they reach the ballot box, they will reject the warped ideology presented by FARC guerrillas who have terrorized the country for decades and continue to embrace the principles of economic freedom, rule of law and individual liberty that kept the country together throughout this destructive conflict.

By signing this agreement, Colombia can begin to close this sad chapter of its history, and the U.S.'s key ally in the region will be all the stronger for it.

Andrés Martínez-Fernández is a research analyst with Visión Américas, which represents U.S. and foreign clients.