‘Since the violence ended’: Peace, even if imperfect, comes to Colombia

On the journey up the Sierra Nevada to the San Lorenzo ridge, a very few abandoned military posts — forlorn bits of concrete, now green and crumbling — can be glimpsed along the side of the rutted jungle road. But there are no soldiers visible here, in one of the world’s most important bird sanctuaries. The only “uniforms” on display early in the morning are those of the birdwatchers, dressed in green and beige, wearing sensible shoes, carrying notebooks and binoculars.

There is no evidence of war or violence at the La Victoria coffee farm, either. Spreading out through one of the valleys below the ridge, the farm operates spectacularly archaic machinery, brought to Colombia at the end of the 19th century by an Englishman. Cogs whir and belts rattle to bring coffee beans through the various stages of drying and roasting. Back in 2002, the cogs fell silent when the farm was occupied by paramilitaries. “They slept in our bed, drank our wine,” jokes the owner’s wife, brushing off events that now seem like ancient history.

Nowadays there are different kinds of problems: Coffee prices go up and down, markets are fickle. But the armed conflict that once engulfed parts of the Sierra Nevada — and overshadowed commerce, politics, culture and pretty much everything else in Colombia for 50 years, killing more than 220,000 — has nearly ground to a halt. The FARC — an acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, one of Latin America’s oldest Marxist guerrilla movements — have negotiated a peace agreement and formally disarmed.

The resulting outbreak of peace has affected everyone. During 10 days here I met no politicians, and in fact many of the people I did meet — ornithologists, historians, entrepreneurs — had no real interest in politics. But all of them kept starting sentences the same way: “Since the violence ended . . . ” As in “Since the violence ended, tourism is growing.” Or: “Since the violence ended, we can focus on the environment.”

To outsiders, this seems like a miracle. Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian president who negotiated the deal, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. This week he was in Davos, Switzerland, touting, with justification, the virtues of his country: “Simply to have peace brings huge investment,” he told an interviewer.

To locals, the miracle is tempered with other things: skepticism, doubt, ambivalence, fear. Like so many peace treaties, the agreement reached in August 2016 did not end with a total victory for one side. The government offered an amnesty to most of the guerrillas and will help them start new businesses and new lives. What is “reintegration” to some sounds like a “get out of jail free” card to others. The former president, Álvaro Uribe, whose military measures forced the FARC to negotiate in the first place, has objected to the idea that its members could now create a party and join electoral politics, making the same transition the Irish Republican Army did in Ireland: “My soul is not prepared to debate with criminals.”

So angered were many Colombians by the light treatment of men who terrorized the country, ran drug cartels and murdered thousands that they surprised the government in October 2016 by voting by a tiny majority — 50.2 to 49.8 percent, a difference of 54,000 votes — against the deal.

The treaty was renegotiated, and then ratified just over a year ago. But six months after the guerrillas gave up their weapons, ambivalence remains. Talking to people here reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with an Israeli academic, at the height of the Oslo peace process. He approved of the negotiations and hoped they would succeed. “But don’t expect me to act excited about it,” he told me, or words to that effect. Too many people had died; there had been too much pain. The Northern Irish peace process once evoked the same mixed feelings. Back in 1999, it often seemed as if the outsiders who negotiated it were more enthusiastic about the Good Friday Agreement than the residents of Belfast themselves.

That unexpected referendum vote here was a product of the same emotion; so is the ambivalence that people still feel about the whole “peace” and “post-conflict” thing — assuming that they agree to talk about them at all. When violence ends, justice does not always triumph. The people who committed crimes are not always punished. The resulting resentment sometimes leads the whole process to unravel.

But sometimes not. The birdwatchers, quietly making lists of local hawks and finches on the San Lorenzo ridge, are a powerful counterargument. So are the many restaurants launched, environmental groups founded and the plans hatched here “since the violence ended.” Peace is rarely perfect, but it makes so many other things possible, including hope itself.

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