2016 Will Be Colombia's Year, and Why It Matters

In 2015, news of Syria's globalized civil war and the mobilization of ISIS recruits dominated the international sections in U.S. newspapers. In contrast, Colombia's civil war, which has been winding down, has received much less attention. 2016 promises to be the year in which fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, the largest and longest-running insurgency in the Western Hemisphere, lay their weapons down. This is big news not only for Colombia but also for the Americas more broadly, because it will extend the depolarization of the hemisphere following the rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba that the world witnessed in 2015.

As Colombian political scientist Dario Villamizar has argued, the disarmament of the FARC will mark the end of a cycle of armed revolution in Latin America dating back to the 1950s. The FARC formally began in 1964, emerging out of unrest that engulfed Colombia in 1948 after the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a populist leader. Although the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959 provides a clear inflection point in Latin American history, inspiring armed movements throughout the region, it was predated by insurrections during the early Cold War, most notably in Colombia, where liberal and communist rebellions coalesced after Gaitan's assassination on April 9, 1948. The violence that unfolded on that day in Bogotá, known as the Bogotazo, helped to radicalize a young Fidel Castro, who happened to be in Bogotá to participate in a conference of youth leaders from Latin America. Colombia is where Latin America's age of revolution began, and nearly 70 years later, it will be where that period ends.

2015 saw the culmination of secret negotiations in the restoration of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba. The anticipated agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC in 2016 will help to diffuse further the long-standing polarization that is the legacy of the Cold War. Most urgently, Colombia's neighbor Venezuela, which has been instrumental in facilitating the ongoing talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, stands to benefit from a regional depolarization. The Maduro government and its opposition remain locked in an unproductive cycle of hysterical recriminations while the Venezuelan economy continues its implosion on account of depressed oil prices and chronic mismanagement. A Colombian peace agreement could inspire Venezuelan politicians who, in a reversal of Carl von Clausewitz's famous dictum, have been conducting politics as war by other means.

The Obama administration has encouraged the peace talks in Colombia through public statements and by sending a special envoy, Bernard Aronson, a senior U.S. diplomat with extensive experience in Latin America. As Colombia's High Commissioner for Peace, Sergio Jaramillo, has warned, the peace agreement will be only the beginning of a long and fraught transitional period that will play out primarily in regions wracked by the conflict. The Obama administration and its successor should follow through in supporting Colombia's transitional justice initiatives, the conflict's victims, and economic development initiatives to avoid the disastrous post-conflict scenarios that have haunted Central America -- and indirectly spurred the current migrant crisis.

Pope Francis, the first pope from Latin America, has been instrumental in the diplomatic breakthrough between Havana and Washington. He has said that he is praying for Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and is planning what will be a historic papal visit to Colombia to rally support for peace. If the accord on the horizon is well implemented -- admittedly, a big if -- Colombia will offer a shining example of depolarization in the Americas. As the specter of the Cold War grows over the Middle East, it can fade in Latin America. The contrast can be illuminating. 2016 should be Colombia's year.