Back in 2014, during the thick of negotiations to end Colombia’s interminable civil war, I was invited to interview President Juan Manuel Santos, and he wanted to get something off his chest.
Knowing our conversation would air in Miami, he took aim at the city’s large Colombian expatriate community. That cohort is mostly opposed to peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—the Marxist guerrillas known by the Spanish acronym FARC.
“Many people in South Florida have bought this black propaganda that I am giving the country away to the Communists,” Santos said. “This is nonsense.”
Like their Cuban exile counterparts, many Miami Colombians have adopted a zero-sum mindset about their motherland. Any concession to the FARC—like any engagement with the Castros—suggests to these expats a complete surrender.
But that outlook faces serious challenges now that government and guerrillas, after four years of talks in Havana, finalized a peace agreement in late August. Suddenly, the end of a 52-year-old war that has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced six million more—the longest and last armed conflict in Latin America—looks imminent.
That is, provided Colombian voters, including those who now reside in Miami, ratify the accord in a referendum on Oct. 2. Most polls indicate they will—and for good reason.
No one knows better than Santos how weak the FARC is today compared to the turn of the century, when the rebel force controlled a swath of Colombia the size of Switzerland. In the 2000s, as the United States poured billions of dollars of Plan Colombia aid into the country, Santos was the defense minister who used the funds to beef up the Colombian military and put the guerrillas on the ropes.
Still, Santos is well aware that while the FARC can be diminished, it is most likely never going to be defeated. For one thing, its war chest is too large—thanks to the hundreds of millions of dollars it reaps every year from cocaine trafficking.
So when Santos was elected in 2010, he decided that the surest way to keep the FARC from rebuilding was to address seriously, for once, the gross socioeconomic inequality that led to the war. He has staked his presidency on it.
But to do that—to modernize Colombia’s infrastructure, carry out epic land reform and give rural teens a future instead of the FARC—there has to be peace. The “mule in the middle of Colombia’s road,” as Santos calls the conflict, must be removed.
“Bottom line, a permanent state of war, a situation where you have whole cities cut off from the mainstream economy because they’re controlled by either guerrillas or paramilitaries...keeps Colombia from ever realizing its potential,” says Carlos Parra, a Colombian expatriate and business professor at Florida International University in Miami.
Or, as Santos told me, “What I’m trying to tell the Colombian people is: Wake up. We have to be a normal country.”
The FARC leadership finally seems to agree, which is why the peace accord’s main points include transforming the guerrilla movement into a mainstream political party.
What sticks most in the craws of the accord’s opponents, however, is a sense that it treats the FARC too leniently. Colombia’s guerrillas, after all, look more like Tony Soprano in military fatigues, a group that bankrolls its crusade not only with drugs but with relentless ransom kidnappings that have often ended in murder.
“They’re just a mafia,” says Miami travel agent and Colombian expat Maria Cascante, who saw numerous relatives abducted by the FARC. “Mr. Santos wants to make peace with the devil.”
But a growing number of Miami expats side with Santos, pointing out that Colombia’s military and right-wing paramilitary groups have committed myriad atrocities, too.
One is Angela Maria Tafur. Her father, a Colombian politician, was killed by a young guerrilla in 1992. Now she runs a charity that is partnering with Santos’s government to bring education and employment opportunities to rural Colombians affected by the violence.
“There has to be a different way than continuing with the war,” she says.
And a different way than the zero-sum politics both left and right have played for too long in Colombia and Latin America.