Colombia’s protracted peace talks have put a serious dent in President Juan Manuel Santos’ approval rating at home – and across the Caribbean.
Santos is probably most unpopular in South Florida, home to the U.S.’s largest Colombian community, which is strongly opposed to peace with Colombia’s Marxist guerrillas, known as the FARC.
In a 2014 interview with WLRN, Santos – who has staked his presidential legacy on ending his South American nation’s 52-year-old civil war – took a dig at Colombian expats here.
“Many people in South Florida have bought this black propaganda that I am giving the country away to the communists,” Santos said. “This is nonsense.”
Last Wednesday, after four years of negotiations in Havana, Santos’s government and the FARC finally announced a peace accord. It could end the longest – and last – armed conflict in the Americas, one that's killed more than 200,000 people and turned 6 million into refugees.
"This is the end of the tragedy of war for Colombia," Santos said.
But Santos still has to get the agreement through a referendum of Colombian voters, including expats here, on October 2.
And even if he does, peace implementation– administering epic land reform, turning the FARC into a legit political party – promises to be harder than peace negotiation.
“The most challenging part starts now,” says Angela Maria Tafur, a Colombian-American in Key Biscayne. “There has to be a true attitude of reconciliation.”
Tafur is a lawyer who heads Give to Colombia, a charity NGO she founded soon after emigrating to Miami in 2000. She’s partnering with Santos’ government now to bring education projects to rural Colombians hardest hit by the war – especially child guerrillas.
“Seven or eight thousand youths in the guerrillas are going to be demobilized and will try to be included in society,” says Tafur. “The biggest challenge in Colombia is the great inequality that exists. That was the cause that led them to go into the guerrillas.”
Tafur has a tragic connection to those youth guerrillas. Her father, Colombian Senator Donald Tafur, was assassinated in 1992 in Cali, Colombia.
“He was shot by the drug lords,” she says, “shot by a 16-year-old demobilized guerrilla. If we do not give a chance to the demobilized guerrillas, they will do what this kid did – they get hired as hitmen for the drug cartels.
“There has to be a different way than continuing with the war. That was one of the motives that got me to help these populations and provide opportunities for them.”
But within South Florida’s largely conservative Colombian community, Tafur is in the minority.
Most expats believe Santos is too forgiving of the fact that the FARC guerrillas financed their war with cocaine trafficking – and with thousands of ransom kidnappings that often ended in murder.
“They’re just a mafia,” says Maria Cascante, an Aventura travel agent. “Mr. Santos wants to make peace with the devil.”
At a gathering of Colombian expats at Florida International University last Saturday, hosted by the Latino Public Opinion Forum, Cascante said she saw numerous relatives kidnapped in Colombia. And while the peace process includes trials for war crimes, she feels the guerrillas will be treated too leniently.
“We all want peace,” says Cascante. “I will cut off my arm for peace. But I need to know it’s for a good outcome.
“The government of Colombia is willing to give the guerrillas a free pass. But you have to pay for what you’ve done.”
Expat Susana Vargas, the U.S. director for a Colombian orphanage, also insists the peace accord will set a bad precedent.
“My family has suffered extortion from the FARC,” says Vargas. “People from my family have been kidnapped and an uncle was killed.
“I think we need to set an example for our kids. You have guerrillas who are the biggest drug dealers in the world, and you’re just going to say, ‘Just forget about everything that you did’”?
But FIU religion professor Ana Maria Bidegain points out Colombia’s military and right-wing paramilitary squads were also guilty of atrocities.
Bidegain’s husband, Carlos Urán, was a Colombian magistrate who tried to prosecute abusive army officers. In 1985, army thugs murdered him.
“We need to be without an armed conflict,” Bidegain argues. “It’s the only way to be able to develop the country. And hopefully our resources will be distributed in a more just way.”
Fellow expat Carlos Parra, an FIU business professor, agrees that “a permanent state of war” has isolated whole cities from the mainstream economy – and chokes Colombia’s potential.
“There are a lot of wallets out there,” says Parra, “a lot of purchasing power we have been missing out on.”
And that may be a big reason that back in Colombia itself, most polls show the Yes for peace vote is ahead.