June was a good month for Colombia. Its streak of World Cup wins suffused the country with a euphoric patriotism. The yellow-blue-red stripes of the Colombian flag appeared on apartment buildings, the front grills of trucks, and painted on people’s cheeks.
Even with game-day alcohol bans designed to inhibit reckless behavior, Colombians crowded into neighborhood bars to cheer on their team. They whooped, jumped up and down, and clapped together in an impressive show of highly emotional sobriety. “We’re making history,” many said as their national soccer team made it to the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time ever.
And in June, peace won the vote in Colombia’s presidential elections. The country took one giant step closer to ending its 50-year-old armed conflict.
Incumbent Juan Manuel Santos and challenger Oscar Zuluaga have plenty in common. Ideologically, Santos is considered center-right and Zuluaga stands further to the right. Both were educated in England. Both have enjoyed at some point in their political career the support of the most powerful and polarizing man in Colombia, ex-President Alvaro Uribe.
They differ on one major question: What’s the best way to quell the armed conflict pitting the government against the FARC guerrillas?
Santos wholeheartedly supports negotiating peace accords to end this insurgency.
Zuluaga opposes dialogue with the rebels and said he would end the current negotiations. He offered military might as a solution, believing it would force the FARC to surrender from a complex conflict in which battles for strategic territory and a tough counterinsurgency doctrine have killed 218,000 people, displaced 5.7 million others and left 25,000 Colombians “disappeared.”
The choice was stark. On June 15, the majority of Colombians cast their votes for Santos. The next day, news headlines declared: “Peace won.”
Three days after the election, I was sitting on the sidewalk in front of the U.S. embassy in Bogotá visiting some former General Motors workers camped out there, when a parade of identical black Suburbans turned into the embassy’s driveway to deliver U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden.
“We fully support you at the negotiating table,” Biden told Santos. “In war and peace, Mr. President, we stand with Colombia.”
Washington isn’t merely “standing with” Colombia in its time of war, it’s bankrolling that war. Our country has spent $6.8 billion since 2000 on aid to Colombia’s armed forces.
All that U.S. military training, weapons, and equipment has aggravated Colombia’s conflict and made it more deadly. A Colombian Congressman, Alirio Uribe, put it this way: “The U.S. sees our house is burning and they come over and throw gasoline on our house.”
Colombian soldiers lured innocent civilians out to remote areas, executed them, and dressed their dead bodies up as guerrilla fighters. The soldiers did this to increase the number of enemy casualties and thereby show that the Colombian military was winning the war. Soldiers who participated were rewarded with extra vacation time and promotions.
The Colombian Attorney General’s office and human rights groups have investigated or documented 5,763 cases like this.
One Colombian general who confessed to participating in the murder of 24 young men said that he was just following orders and that this strategy of killing civilians and framing them as guerrillas was developed by his boss, Mario Montoya, then-commander of the Colombian army.
The general also testified that his commander said, “I don’t want to see puddles of blood. I want to see rivers.”
Colombians are tired of war. Juan Manuel Santos’s victory gives him a mandate for peace.
Instead of funding Colombia’s military, the Obama administration should direct aid dollars to support Colombia’s civilian institutions, vulnerable populations, and sustainable economic initiatives. Only with strong civilian governance and guarantees for truth, justice and integral reparations will Colombians be able to begin the task of constructing the vibrant, inclusive, peaceful country in which all have a voice.
That’s worth more than any World Cup triumph, no matter how historic.