Colombia’s government is using the coronavirus to weaken the historic peace agreement

It’s no secret that Colombia’s president, Iván Duque, and his ruling party have never been fond of the peace agreement signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas in 2016. The deal has come under enormous pressure over the years, but the pandemic has provided the perfect pretext to avoid its implementation.

The government recently called for the exclusion of former FARC commanders from politics, a critical element of the negotiations, while killings of demobilized combatants and human rights defenders have risen during the quarantine. Meanwhile, plans to restart fumigation of illicit crops, discouraged by the deal, are moving forward, and money allocated to peace programs is being used to promote the president.

“Peace, but not like this” became the slogan of Duque’s right-wing Democratic Center party, founded by former president Álvaro Uribe. Uribe and his followers would have preferred the FARC to disarm unconditionally, without any legal protections or guarantees of political participation.

But the 300-page peace accord was designed to end decades of bloodshed and bring the country into the 21st century. The peace talks were not designed simply to demobilize the FARC but to provide an opportunity to do what the privileged classes had postponed, from the modernization of the countryside and the democratization of property rights, to investment in the most conflict-ridden regions and the opening up of the political system.

After the narrow victory in a referendum of those who campaigned against the deal, the parties went back to the negotiating table and the original text was modified, albeit not enough to satisfy opponents. In his first year in office, Duque and the Democratic Center attempted to introduce direct or indirect changes to the agreement. Congress denied the reforms proposed.

Now, with Colombians focused on the coronavirus emergency, a new window has opened for the government and the Democratic Center to pursue old and new ways to attack peace.

The Office for Stabilization, the agency in charge of implementation, asked for former FARC commanders to abandon their seats in Congress, one of the many key if unpleasant concessions included in peace agreements, even though the Constitutional Court had already ruled in their favor.

The FARC had agreed to return ill-gotten assets as the price of maintaining legal benefits. Nonetheless, once disarmed, the former combatants lost control of many plots of land in violent areas. The final deadline set by the Duque government of July 31 to return all assets falls in the middle of the pandemic and seems like a trap to ensure noncompliance, which would mean the loss of legal benefits.

Furthermore, as of May 9, six former combatants and 32 human rights defenders have been assassinated during the national coronavirus lockdown, according to the United Nations. Since the signing of the peace agreement, 198 former combatants have been killed. Aware that drug cartels and other criminal bands would move into areas the guerrillas once controlled, the negotiating parties created security initiatives that the current government has refused to use.

The peace accord also favored voluntary eradication and crop substitution of coca plantations. Fumigation with glyphosate, the chemical known as RoundUp, which the World Health Organization considers a probable carcinogenic, was left as a final alternative. The previous government had terminated the practice due to health and environmental considerations. The Constitutional Court imposed a requirement of consultation with rural communities prior to restarting any air fumigation. In the middle of the lockdown, the government is pushing for virtual meetings, aware that many Colombian peasants have limited access to Internet, much less to computers.

And recently, a spokesman for the Democratic Center proposed using the funds allocated to the peace agreement for the economic stimulus package that has now become necessary. Duque said nothing; instead, with peace money, he authorized contracts to increase his presence in social media and do polling on his performance.

If the peace dividends of the negotiation persist, that will be because of a legal framework that has resisted attacks, institutions that have stood up against intimidation and a citizenry mobilized to defend the agreement.

Colombia must remain committed to peace. The disease of coronavirus should not be used to strengthen the disease of war, which has been the most brutal plague afflicting our country.

Laura Gil is a Colombian political analyst and the editor of the website La Línea del Medio.

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