Inside Petro’s Peace Experiment

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

This week’s newsletter is coming to you from Bogotá, where we’re examining a newly announced plan for a cease-fire with Colombia’s largest remaining guerrilla group. Other highlights include Jamaica-hosted talks on Haiti and a soccer victory for Uruguay at the U-20 Men’s World Cup.

Designing De-escalation

In recent months, some left-wing leaders in Latin America have warmed to tough-on-crime strategies amid public concerns over insecurity. Honduran President Xiomara Castro praised El Salvador’s sweeping detentions to address gang violence and granted security forces similar emergency powers, while Chilean President Gabriel Boric deployed the military to a restive region in the nation’s south.

In Colombia, however, President Gustavo Petro is pressing forward with a dramatically different approach. Last Friday in Havana, Petro announced plans for a six-month nationwide cease-fire between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), a leftist insurgent group, due to start Aug. 3. A member of Petro’s negotiating team called the agreement one of the most important developments so far in a strategy that Petro—who was inaugurated last August—dubs “total peace.”

One of Petro’s campaign proposals was to explore peace deals with the ELN and other armed groups that hold sway in parts of Colombia. Bogotá struck a peace and demobilization deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group in 2016, but the right-wing administration elected in 2018 stalled on implementing parts of the agreement and embraced the use of force against coca producers and drug traffickers in Colombia’s countryside.

By 2022, enough Colombians were open to giving peace another chance. They elected Petro, who promised not only the prospect of peace with the ELN but also a rethink to the paradigm of the war on drugs. Armed groups like the ELN engage to different extents in drug trafficking, but when they are targeted by military force, civilians in rural communities suffer, too. The ELN itself has a track record of kidnapping civilians and child recruitment. Voter support for Petro was highest in some of Colombia’s most conflict-ridden areas.

Petro’s security strategy has two main pillars, said Iván Cepeda, a senator in Petro’s coalition and member of the government negotiating team with the ELN. One is to strike cease-fire agreements with armed groups and attempt to develop those into more comprehensive peace deals. The other is to change the law enforcement approach to coca farmers and drug trafficking.

After taking office, Petro pursued total peace in earnest. He announced five cease-fires in December 2022. But most lacked clear rules and monitoring protocols, and three have by now collapsed.

The new plan for a cease-fire with the ELN aims to course-correct from those failures. It is “more meticulous” and more realistic, Cepeda told Foreign Policy. Leonardo González, a human rights and conflict researcher for the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace, said conflict-ridden communities he works with generally “welcomed” the news, with optimism that was more cautious in some areas.

The government and insurgents signed a document saying that rules for the cease-fire will be set between now and the Aug. 3 start date. Those rules will also include guidelines for monitoring compliance, which is expected to involve the United Nations. A short paragraph in the document says the parties will work to facilitate a broader “peace process,” echoing the language of the 2016 FARC negotiations.

Last week, an ELN negotiator told BluRadio Colombia that the cease-fire did not mean the group had agreed to end all of its coercive behavior: For example, it agreed to stop offensive fire at Colombian soldiers but not to stop kidnapping civilians. Colombia’s defense ministry later said the military would punish kidnappings and any other illegal actions outside the scope of the deal.

The fact that kidnappings and other kinds of repression do not appear to be prohibited in the preliminary deal caused some public backlash. “If we tried to get everything, we wouldn’t reach an agreement,” Cepeda said. In the future, “if the process as a whole advances, we can take new steps regarding the ceasefire and also a cease in hostilities,” which would be broader in scope.

Bogotá’s difficulties extracting concessions from the ELN underscore how distant Petro is from striking a full demobilization deal like the 2016 FARC accord. “That might be the ideal end state,” International Crisis Group senior analyst Elizabeth Dickinson said, “but I think it’s far from where we are today.” The ELN and other groups moved into some territories abandoned by the FARC after the 2016 deal, in part because the state did not sufficiently occupy those areas, a senior U.N. official in Colombia told the Cambio news site this week.

So far, Dickinson added, Petro’s total peace approach has effectively consisted of “using the tools of cease-fires, of humanitarian agreements, of negotiations” to try to “reduce violence against civilians.” While some cease-fires under Petro have reduced homicides over specific periods of time, their success is not a given: After a government cease-fire with one group imploded in May, Dickinson said, “we’re actually worse off than if we’d never had the cease-fire at all,” not only because of lost trust but because the group became “far more aggressive in terms of their civilian control.”

Meanwhile, Petro has partially followed up on his campaign promise to change Colombia’s law enforcement approach to coca farmers and drug trafficking. While several previous governments invested their resources in forcibly eradicating coca crops­ and hunting down drug kingpins, Petro’s administration has targeted the financial operations they believe finance the gangs. This shift aims to avoid bloody military operations that have caused rural communities to distrust the Colombian government over the years.

Even so, fully reestablishing that trust also depends on “closing a gap of unfulfilled promises on rural development” that were part of the 2016 FARC deal but have not yet been fully implemented—such as rural infrastructure investments, issuing payments to farmers who destroyed their coca crops, and land redistribution, sociologist Paulo Tovar of the Ideas for Peace Foundation told Foreign Policy.

Rural reform “is the long-term way out of conflict,” Dickinson added. “Everything that has to do with the illicit economy is fundamental to unraveling this mystery of peace.”

Rebuilding confidence in the countryside is a slow process. But some political observers—and Petro himself—said they saw a sign of it last Friday, when Colombians universally celebrated the military and Indigenous search groups’ joint rescue of four children from the jungle after they survived a plane crash 40 days earlier. “This is a new Colombia,” Petro tweeted.

Friday, June 16: Colombian President Gustavo Petro meets with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin.

Tuesday, June 20, to Friday, June 23: Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visits Italy and France.

Wednesday, June 21, to Friday, June 23: The Organization of American States holds its annual assembly in Washington.

Sunday, June 25: Guatemala holds general elections.

A Cuban death, revisited. Questions have swirled around the circumstances of the 2012 death of Cuban opposition leader Oswaldo Payá for over a decade. This week, they were met with firm evidence in the form of a report by the human rights commission of the Organization of American States (OAS) that pinned blame for Payá’s death on the Cuban government.

Cuban officials had previously said a Spanish politician driving a car carrying Payá in eastern Cuba lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a tree. The Spanish politician, Ángel Carromero, was later sentenced to four years in prison. But the OAS found “serious and sufficient evidence” that state agents participated in the death. The report cited testimony from Carromero and an eyewitness that an official Cuban government car crashed into their vehicle from behind. Payá’s fellow human rights defender and dissident Harold Cepero also died in the incident.

Jamaica hosts Haiti talks. Envoys from the Caribbean Community and three former Caribbean prime ministers facilitated talks with Haitian officials and civil society groups in Jamaica this week. The gathering aimed at overcoming the country’s political and security crisis as well as a creating a path toward elections. Violence in Haiti escalated following the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Some civil society groups have claimed interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who was not elected, is illegitimate.

The United States and Canada gave financial support to the Jamaica talks as Haitian civil society groups called for a “Haitian-led solution” to the impasse. Henry, the U.S. government, and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres have all previously called for an international security force to intervene in the country. In the meantime, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris pledged last week on a visit to the Bahamas that Washington would establish a mentoring program for judges and prosecutors in the Caribbean to strengthen crime-fighting.

The talks in Jamaica ended without a major deal, but the three former Caribbean prime ministers announced that they planned to travel to Haiti to speak with members of a transition council tasked with planning new elections.

Uruguayan soccer players celebrate after winning the 2023 U-20 Men’s World Cup at the Unique Diego Armando Maradona Stadium in La Plata, Argentina, on June 11.

Uruguayan soccer players celebrate after winning the 2023 U-20 Men’s World Cup at the Unique Diego Armando Maradona Stadium in La Plata, Argentina, on June 11.

Uruguayan soccer players celebrate after winning the 2023 U-20 Men’s World Cup at the Unique Diego Armando Maradona Stadium in La Plata, Argentina, on June 11.Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images

Young champions. Uruguay defeated Italy in the finals of the under-20 men’s soccer World Cup on Sunday to become tournament champions, ending a European winning streak that had lasted for four tournaments. The match took place in Argentina, and thousands of Uruguayans took ferries across the River Plate—which lies on the border between the two countries—to watch it in person. Other Uruguayan soccer games were canceled on Sunday so fans could watch the U-20 World Cup final on television.

The victory for the young squad bodes well for the adult national team, which was knocked out of last year’s World Cup in the group stage after a shock win by South Korea over Portugal. Most importantly, after Argentina’s World Cup win last December, it “brings South American hegemony back to global soccer,” Camilo Andrés López Castillo wrote in El Colombiano. The team was greeted with a parade welcome in Montevideo.

The ELN carried out a 100-day cease-fire with the Colombian government once before. When?

The cease-fire was not renewed after it ended in January 2018.

European Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen and Chilean President Gabriel Boric give statements to the press after meeting at the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile, on June 14.

European Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen and Chilean President Gabriel Boric give statements to the press after meeting at the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile, on June 14.

European Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen and Chilean President Gabriel Boric give statements to the press after meeting at the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile, on June 14.Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen focused on economic partnerships in her tour of four Latin American countries this week. The trip appeared aimed at preparing investments to announce at July’s European Union-Community of Latin American and Caribbean States summit in Brussels, especially in green energy.

In Argentina, von der Leyen signed a memorandum of understanding on value-added lithium products, and in Chile, she and President Gabriel Boric announced plans for a “strategic alliance” based around lithium. Her pitches echoed those of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz when he visited South America in January: European countries seek access to lithium and other raw materials needed for the energy transition and stand ready to make high-quality investments in those industries that go beyond mining alone.

In Germany’s long-awaited national security strategy released this week, Scholz underscored that Berlin was investing in “new partnerships with emerging countries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas” in part to ensure a “secure energy and raw materials supply for our country.”

In Argentina and Brazil, meanwhile, von der Leyen stressed that the EU aims to conclude its trade deal with the South American customs union Mercosur this year. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has voiced concerns that strict environmental requirements the EU is seeking as part of the deal could unduly penalize Brazil.

Von der Leyen’s approach is noteworthy in that it acknowledges Latin American countries’ own interests in developing their lithium sectors. Like other developing regions, Latin America has a long history of foreign countries and companies flocking to a commodity rush and being reluctant to share what they extract with local economies.

Still, those local economies also need a suite of domestic policies to be put in place in order for the green commodity sector to reach its potential, Chatham House’s Christopher Sabatini wrote in World Politics Review last month. Latin American countries should increase job training programs to connect more domestic workers to growing green energy sectors, he argued.

“While the world urgently needs to shift to green economies and exports, it just as much also needs a sober analysis of the necessary investments to allow marginalized workers to benefit.”

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