As Latin America’s Last Insurgency Ends, a Look Back at an Early and Imperfect Model

Yesterday, the Colombian government finally signed a historic peace agreement with the guerrilla leaders of the left-wing FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). If successfully implemented, it would put an end to the longest-running armed conflict in the hemisphere, one that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions in the Colombian countryside.

The deal, which was agreed after four years of formal negotiations in Havana, comes nearly three decades after the Esquipulas Peace Accords helped bring Central America out of its own endless wars. The history of those accords, warts and all, shows that it’s worth giving peace a chance.

At the height of the late Cold War, Central America became its bloodiest battleground. Multiple armed struggles — the left-wing Sandinistas were at war with the U.S.-backed Contras in Nicaragua, military regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador fought to defeat their own Marxist insurgencies — threatened to agglomerate into a fully regionalized conflict. By August 1987, when five of the region’s Presidents signed a deal based on a plan submitted by Costa Rica’s Óscar Arias (who bagged a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts), the toll of dead, disappeared, and displaced was already enormous. The agreement featured several measures for national reconciliation which provided the basis for individual peace agreements within each signatory country, but the basic idea was to forge peace in Central America by re-making its countries as democracies. It was, in the words of one its negotiators, a simple barter: an end to armed conflict in exchange for democratic elections across the isthmus.

But democracy doesn’t consist exclusively of elections. Nicaragua now holds them regularly, but the ruling party gets to choose who is allowed to run and who isn’t. Across the border in Honduras, the military is no longer in power, yet it helped overthrow a democratically elected government in 2009.

And to be sure, the absence of full-scale armed conflict hasn’t meant an end to violence in the region. Since the denouement of the revolutionary upheavals of the 1980s, the failure to ameliorate extreme social inequalities, the continued weakness of rule of law, and the added elements of drug trafficking and organized crime have turned a few Central American countries into some of the world’s most violent. In El Salvador, in fact, last year’s death toll was actually the highest recorded since the peak of its civil war.

However, despite the sad state of affairs nearly thirty years after Central American leaders met in the small Guatemalan city of Esquipulas, it’s worth considering just how difficult it was to arrive at that (albeit flawed) peace agreement. For starters, the Reagan administration in Washington opposed the deal brokered exclusively among Central American countries, fearing that it might allow the Sandinista government to stay in power in Nicaragua (they would actually go on to lose their elections in 1990). Peacemakers also had to contend with domestic opponents who employed fear-mongering rhetoric, mirroring the type currently used by ex-President Alvaro Uribe in Colombia, to convince their countries’ citizens that a peace deal wouldn’t end the war.

Consider also that the Esquipulas agreement came at the end of a long line of failed multilateral peace initiatives. As explained recently by Sergio Ramírez, Nicaragua’s Vice President at the time, the agreement only became possible once everybody realized that a military solution was impossible. He argues that it’s the same in Colombia, where its people should switch “bullets for ballots.” This transformation of armed groups into political actors was undeniably a success in Central America, one that many thought unlikely and that others explicitly opposed; Ramirez cites the example of El Salvador’s FMLN, the former guerrilla movement which has twice captured the country’s presidency in the democratic era. To be clear, while Esquipulas failed to fulfill some of its loftier goals, we can only imagine how Central America’s problems would’ve been compounded by the continued carnage of war had its leaders not found the courage to lay down arms and come together. Given the option, no sane person would go back in time and reverse that process.

One key difference between Central America and Colombia is that in the latter, citizens actually get to decide on the peace agreement in a plebiscite this Sunday, October 2nd.(As a Colombian friend recently quipped on social media, “What type of country has to ask its citizens if they want peace?”) Former Colombian President César Gaviria warned last month that a “NO” vote would almost certainly reignite and prolong the war, as clearly would’ve been the case in Central America had peace negotiations kept breaking down. Undoubtedly, even a ratified deal in Colombia will still have to contend with a host of thorny issues including transitional justice and compensation for the war’s victims. Perhaps more importantly, the success of the accords will hinge on the implementation of an ambitious land reform program aimed at addressing the root-causes of social unrest and inequality which originally led to the war 52 years ago. The Central American agreements attempted nothing of the sort.

Fortunately, the “YES” campaign holds a solid lead in the latest polls. I hope that Colombians follow the Central American example in ending the war, and find more success than we did in building the peace.

Mateo Jarquín