How to repair Canada’s reputation in Latin America: Start with Colombia

A peace agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government would be historic for the Americas. Yet, until now, Canada has been largely absent from the process. 

By: /
November 3, 2015
Colombia's lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle waits for the beginning of a conference in Havana October 2, 2015. Seeking to quell controversy back home, Colombia's leftist FARC guerrillas on Friday advocated making public the entire 18-page agreement they reached with the government last week to end their 50-year-long war within six months. REUTERS/Enrique de la Osa

Colombia is on the cusp of signing a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest active insurgent group in the Americas, thus ending a 60-year-old conflict that has claimed the lives of thousands and is responsible for the internal displacement of around 10 percent of the country’s population.

Although resolving the Colombian civil conflict has been the bane of the hemisphere for decades, for those less familiar, the conflict has a complex history involving remnants of Cold-War-era guerrilla wars, and the global drug trade. Thanks to their control of profitable coca leaf fields and drug routes connecting to North America and Europe, over the years the FARC, along with several smaller groups, quickly became a well-funded force capable of overtaking the central state.

By the turn of the millennium, Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá, was under siege by the guerrillas. Nevertheless, a brutal state-sponsored military campaign, which was funded by the U.S. under the auspices of Plan Colombia, pushed the guerrilla fighters back in to the jungles and away from urban centres.

Then, three years ago, after a string of FARC military defeats plus a series of high-rank casualties, the insurgency’s central command agreed to meet President Juan Manuel Santos at the negotiating table.

The agenda for the peace process has been rather ambitious. The negotiators, who have been meeting intermittently in Havana, Cuba, seek to tackle a variety of issues and grievances that get to the heart of the Colombian conflict. Items for discussion in the agenda include land redistribution and agricultural reform (the insurgency’s original raison d’être), legitimate political participation for the left, reparations to victims of both the state and the FARC, and the permeation of the drug trade in Colombian society, among others.  President Santos has pledged to sign a complete peace deal by the end of next year.

Where’s Canada?

Colombia’s peace process, which could prove to be a pivotal moment for the continent, has no Canadian presence whatsoever. President Santos promised a finalized agreement by the end of next year. If the Canadian government continues to be absent, it will certainly miss the opportunity to witness an important moment for the Americas, or, further, to help secure its success.

Norway, Venezuela, Chile and Cuba have played a major part in mediation and reconciliation efforts. Chile’s diplomatic effort has been remarkable, given its dark past under General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship, which ended in 1990. Despite the tumultuous history, which includes Pinochet’s brutal persecution and oppression of leftist thought, Chile has managed to replace Canada’s role as the region’s go-to neutral party.

It is clear that Canada under Conservative rule had completely disengaged with its traditional role as a champion of diplomacy, honest broker, and promoter of human rights. From our war drum thumping over Ukraine to our late, and comparatively small, response to the Syrian refugee crisis, there has been a consensus over Canada’s divergent turn from its core values in the world stage. The turn has been palpable in the Americas. (Furthermore, Canada antagonised Brazil, the largest and most influential economy in the region, by spying on their top officials.) However, Canada’s absence in the Colombian process, one of our closest partners in the Americas, is a new low.

The absence in the peace process — representative of a larger absence from the region — is disappointing for long-term observers.

Canada’s image in the Americas has rapidly deteriorated in the last decade. Driven by the commodities boom, the Harper government focused its continental strategy on securing access to markets for Canadian-based natural resources and mining companies. This unrestricted resource drive has been relatively effective, with many Canadian companies having a strong presence in countries like Colombia, Peru, and Honduras. The Colombia-Canada free trade agreement implemented in 2011 was aimed at securing Canadian access to Colombian resources, for example. However, the presence of mining and resource extraction companies has at times created divisions within communities and resentment by locals of Canadian companies. Canada is now often viewed as an exploitative, imperialist power, playing a similar role as the U.S. in the region.  

Our actions thus far in Colombia are the perfect example of our skewed foreign policy priorities. Canada’s drive for natural resource exploitation and our minimal role in the Colombian peace process is shameful and further evidence of our waning role in world affairs.

Restoring relations

Incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can change this.

Canada used to be regarded with respect and warmth in the region, particularly during the Cold war. In the 1990s Canada played a remarkable role in ending a myriad of civil wars plaguing Central America. The Esquipulas Peace agreement, the first of various agreements that ended the brutal wars between leftist guerrillas and U.S.-backed forces in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras was the brain-child of Canadian diplomats and policy makers. Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), an approach that uses small and symbolic actions to quell uncertainty between negotiating parties in conflicts, were first used by Canadian mediators in Central America. During the Pinochet dictatorship, which promoted violence against civilians suspected of ties with the political left, Canada opened its arms to thousands of Chilean political refugees. Today, along with thousands of refugees from Central America, the Caribbean, Venezuela, Peru and Colombia, Chileans form vibrant communities in Montreal and Toronto. Latin American refugees and CBMs are just two examples of Canada’s enormous role in peacekeeping and stability in the region.

The continent needs Canada to step up again. Central America and Mexico are facing a new crisis. Rising criminal violence has driven thousands to march north in search of a better life. An increasingly despotic government in Venezuela has curved human rights and persecuted political dissidents. Authoritarianism is still rearing its ugly head in some parts of the region like Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia. On the other hand, Colombia’s possible peace and rising democratic movements in Guatemala and Honduras need strong support and assistance. 

Canada has forsaken its legacy. In a half-hearted action, the Harper government donated $1 million — a relatively meagre amount — to the Organization of American States (OAS) for the peace effort in Colombia. However, the OAS has been on the sidelines of the negotiations, as it is largely seen as a puppet of U.S. interests in the region by the FARC. Canada has not served as mediator, observer or broker in the negotiations and, to the best of my knowledge, it has not expressed intent to collaborate in a post-conflict scenario, where experience in peacekeeping and peace-building will be critical. In short, the whole Canadian effort in this pivotal moment for the region has consisted of a small donation to an organization sitting on the sidelines.

Great challenges remain in order for Colombia to fully implement a future peace agreement. Demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of insurgents, the next item in the agenda to be discussed, will proof to be the most challenging to carryout. In order for the process to begin, insurgent forces will have to leave their shelters in the mountains, concentrate in single area and give up their arms. International observers to guarantee order and security during this crucial part of the process will be necessary. Fair elections that are respectful of political dissidence will need to be monitored and verified by truly neutral parties.

A recent settlement on transitional justice mechanisms, the most critical issue of the whole process, indicates that peace is really attainable for the South American nation. There is hope that, for the first time in decades, a better future for the country is just around the corner. Colombia, now more than ever needs Canada’s help.

If Justin Trudeau is serious about restoring Canada’s role in the world, Colombia is the place to start.