Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos met with President Obama and members of Congress in February, seeking further support and funding for his country. He says that 15 years ago Colombia was almost a failed state, and now it is on the verge of a peace agreement that could end its 50-year civil war.
I first became aware of this war in 1970 when my wife and I traveled in the countryside outside Bogota and Cali. Our bus was stopped and searched by the military. We were told they were looking for guerrilla fighters.
By the 1990s the civil war had increased, as did a vocal peace-and-justice lobby both within Colombia and here in the United States. Each year at our Scottdale, Pa., congregation, we would have one Sunday to remember the violence in Colombia. We were told about the atrocities committed against peasants in the war zones. We were told about the inequalities in Colombian society and especially the evils of the Colombian military and the paramilitaries sympathetic to the government.
The main message was that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, and other guerrilla groups had justice on their side because they wanted land reform and reduction of economic inequality. One could hardly disagree, and I believed all their stories of violence. Meanwhile, by the end of the ’90s, the U.S. government’s role and Plan Colombia became the main focus.
We were told to oppose this plan, which was heavy on military aid to the Colombian government. Instead of Plan Colombia, we should send more aid to Colombia for education, food and social welfare. The Colombian government should seek a negotiated peace with the armed revolutionaries. A few Mennonites even did a theatrical bread-instead-of-guns demonstration one day in Bogota.
What the American peace-and-justice lobby did not tell us was that the Colombian government had tried negotiations and cease-fires with the Marxist oriented groups during the ’90s. During these years, the revolutionaries simply used the time and the drug money to take over more territory until finally they threatened the major population centers, even the capital, Bogota.
At this point the citizenry said enough of negotiations. The Colombian voters were not interested in turning the country into a version of Cuba or Venezuela. By a large majority they elected a strongman, President Alvaro Uribe. By 2012, Uribe’s minister of defense, now President Santos, offered peace negotiations, which are currently being finalized in Havana, Cuba, hence bringing Santos to Washington.
Who gets the credit?
The deal is not finished, but well-meaning citizens of both countries can be thankful for these developments and approximations of peace, order, justice, economic growth and the rule of law emerging in Colombia. As near as I can tell, these developments happened in spite of, rather than because of, the peace-and-justice lobby’s efforts.
Sometimes, a strong central government (even an imperfect one), which Plan Colombia, Uribe and Santos provided, can help a country. It brought the FARC to the negotiating table, diminished violence and provided a degree of order such that schools can be open, farms can be tilled, business transacted and justice approximated.
A pacifist Mennonite Christian can appreciate this governmental role, which our ancestors called the sword of the state, to keep order in a fallen world. I confess the same ethic regarding our local police here in Ohio. Not all conflict and violence can be solved by nonviolence and negotiation, though the latter are certainly preferable.
President Santos’ visit came about the same time a Mennonite World Conference news release arrived. The La Esperanza Mennonite Brethren Church was caught in the crossfire when the FARC attacked government troops last summer. The church press called for prayer and notes of support. I wrote to Pastor Francisco Mosquera:
“Greetings in Jesus’ name. We thank God for the Mennonite churches of Colombia, and our prayers are that peace will come to your country and the La Esperanza community. We recognize that these political issues are complicated, but we simply pray that a level of peace, justice and fraternal and legal order will prevail and that your members can worship freely and families can work, do business and sleep tranquilly, as the Hebrews confessed, each under their vine and fig tree.”
Levi Miller lives in Wooster, Ohio.