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Peace in Colombia deserves our support — and our patience

Peace in Colombia deserves our support — and our patience
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In Colombia, the prospect of a lasting peace after 50 years of civil war never has been so promising. At the same time, that promise of peace faces some daunting obstacles.

While neighboring Venezuela descends further into political and economic chaos, Colombia awaits its first presidential election in May since the historic 2016 peace accord with the FARC rebel group.

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But even this hopeful development is fraught with peril from many quarters. Refugees from Venezuela are streaming across the border, triggering a humanitarian crisis that is straining government resources. Violence and murder are threatening to mar, or even derail, the electoral process. Since the peace accord took effect, more than 50 people associated with FARC have been killed in 44 separate attacks, according to the Office of the Attorney General of Colombia.

 

Many other political organizers and indigenous leaders have been targeted. A separate rebel group that is not part of the peace process, the ELN, resumed attacks on security targets and oil pipelines after a ceasefire agreement with the government expired in January.

Another factor is that some of the candidates for president are either skeptical or outright hostile to the peace process instituted by the man they would succeed, President Juan Manuel Santos. Two of the four leading candidates, representing right-wing parties, take a jaundiced view of the accord and its implementation. In what could be a barometer for May’s presidential contest, voters favored right-wing parties skeptical of the peace accord in recent congressional elections.

Also threatening the country’s peace and stability is the dramatic rise in coca cultivation, which increased by approximately 50 percent in each of the past two years. President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Gillum and DeSantis’s first debate GOP warns economy will tank if Dems win Gorbachev calls Trump's withdrawal from arms treaty 'a mistake' MORE has threatened punitive action against countries that are major sources of drugs bound for the United States, saying he would cut off U.S. aid to countries not doing enough to stem the supply of drugs.

The administration has not said whether it would honor the prior U.S. pledge of $4.5 billion in aid over the next 10 years. However, the president’s 2019 fiscal year budget request for development in Colombia amounts to a cut of 45 percent compared to what was spent in FY 2017.

Despite these obstacles and threats, the hard-won peace is holding in Colombia. There is a recognition of the toll a half-century of war took on this country, and Venezuela’s misery looms as a cautionary tale. I recently visited Colombia in my capacity as president of Lutheran World Relief, an American international development organization, and the most hopeful signs I saw were the steps being taken by local leaders, including politicians, business people and representatives of civil society, to promote a “peace dividend” of stability, transparent investment and economic growth that includes all.

The goal is to stabilize and develop rural areas of the country that have been neglected, or worse, the setting for violence and land grabs. Assisting poor, rural farmers by making markets work for them — and by helping those who grow coca to transition to other cash crops such as coffee or cocoa — will go a long way toward achieving economic, political and social stability.

I was struck by the sense of collective responsibility farmers had for the wellbeing of their neighbors, their community and their environment. “Leonardo,” one coffee farmer with whom I spoke, participated in a project supported by Starbucks Foundation that taught him to wash his harvest and process the wastewater in an environmentally-friendly way that didn’t pollute the local water supply downstream.

When I asked him what he got out of that, he told me, “A lot more work!” The process didn’t increase his bottom line, but he knew that if he dumped untreated wastewater it would pollute the water source for the local school and his neighbors down the hillside. He was proud to have the ability to care for the environment and his community.

Through this spirit of collective responsibility, especially at the local level, the hard work of peace will be won. Rebuilding collective participation and responsibility at the local level is a key ingredient to creating a stable and prosperous Colombia for the next generation. To that end, my colleagues at LWR in Colombia have worked to convene a number of unlikely partners, including local peace and development organizations, university officials, members of the private sector, representatives from the indigenous and Afro Colombian communities, and farmers’ associations to ensure their voices are heard. This advisory and watchdog group will ensure the promises of the peace accord become reality at the local level.

Our past U.S. assistance has helped to bring Colombia to this auspicious point in its history. Now is not the time for threats. As Congress considers an administration budget for the 2019 fiscal year that again threatens considerable cuts for foreign assistance, including Colombia, we must support the peace process with patient U.S. leadership, and financial support, even if its implementation will take time and will be imperfect.

If Colombia were to slip back into war and widespread violence, not only would another generation of Colombians suffer, but the impacts undoubtedly would be felt in the United States. The instability would only make drug and migration problems worse,  and create further problems throughout the region.

Daniel Speckhard, a former U.S. ambassador and senior official at NATO, is president and CEO of Lutheran World Relief, a global humanitarian and development nonprofit.