Virtually everybody but Colombia’s conservatives agree: rolling back a peace process and ending peace talks with ELN rebels could plunge the country back into war.
The country will decide which road to take on June 17 when it elects a new president.
The race has been reduced to the hard-right Ivan Duque and leftist Gustavo Petro with the June vote likely to decide the future of the country’s fragile peace process with the now-demobilized FARC guerrillas.
While former M-19 guerrilla Petro has vowed to continue with the process that seeks to end more than half a century of armed conflict, Duque has vowed to make unilateral changes to the 2016 peace deal and end peace talks with the ELN unless they agree to a unilateral ceasefire.
According to Petro, Duque and his political party are promoting the “return of war” in Colombia.
Other candidates, politicians and analysts have echoed similar sentiments in defense of the peace process that seeks to end decades of armed conflict that has left more than 8 million victims.
Duque, who has been labeled by some as a puppet of hard-right former president Alvaro Uribe, has fiercely opposed the peace deal from the outset.
His party, the Democratic Center, initially warned that the peace process would convert Colombia into a second Venezuela, the neighboring country whose leftist president ruined the economy.
Uribe and his followers are convinced that leftists, and communists in particular, constitute a threat to morality and the economy alike; they have been fighting leftists to the death since 1964.
The political exclusion of leftists — communists weren’t even allowed in the country until 2016 — served as a buffer to maintain the status quo.
The opposition is not entirely ideological.
The wealthy landowners that support Duque oppose an end to the medieval distribution of land that has benefited their families since before the republic. The violent repression of workers has served the private sector.
Should Duque be elected as head of state, Colombia’s peace deal with the Marxist guerrillas, which includes land reform and guarantees for peaceful dissent, will be plunged into uncertainty.
Duque’s party, the hard-right Democratic Center, wants to “rip the peace deal to fucking pieces,” as one Uribe-loyal lawmaker put it.
The presidential candidate has put it more delicately, but his proposal to end the guerrillas’ amnesty for drug trafficking-related crimes and break the promise of political participation could send many former FARC members back to the jungles.
“The biggest part of the accord could just go into the trashcan,” Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin American told The Guardian newspaper.
The man who negotiated the deal on behalf of President Juan Manuel Santos, Humberto de la Calle, called on the remaining candidates not to abandon the process after he was eliminated from the race on Sunday.
“We cannot turn back. We can not allow peace to burn in the oven door. Colombia today has a second chance on Earth, and this is the main responsibility that the next president will have to assume,” De la Calle told his supporters.
FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, a.k.a “Timochenko,” urged Colombians to consider the consequences of ending a historic peace process.
‘I do not want to say that we are going to war again, but seeds for a new conflict can be sown,” Londoño was quoted as saying by Cuban news agency Prensa Latina.
The FARC’s return to war is unlikely. The guerrillas surrendered thousands of weapons and have abandoned the criminal enterprises that financed their armed revolt.
The ELN, however, is still in arms and new groups could rise, according to former President Ernesto Samper (Liberal Party).
“The agreements are irreversible, but peace is not. If no precautions are taken, the conflict can resurrect,” he told Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia.
There is no guarantee, however, that Petro is able to maintain the peace if he is elected. Far-right paramilitary groups have already stepped up the threatening and killing of human rights defenders and political activists.
Also these groups, traditionally sponsored by large landowners like Uribe, could grow and plunge the country back into the political violence that has scarred Colombian society for decades.