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Opinion: We Need to Stand with Colombia On Peace Efforts

Our South American ally is working to achieve peace, says Rep. Ruben Gallego, who is the nation's first congressman of Colombian-American origin.
Image: Colombia's lead government negotiator de la Calle shakes hands with Norway's representative to the peace talks Salvesen as Cuban mediator Benitez shakes hands with FARC lead negotiator Marquez during a joint declaration in Havana
Colombia's lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle, (L) shakes hands with Norway's representative in the Colombia-FARC peace talks Hilde Salvesen as Cuban mediator of the dialogue between Colombia's government and FARC Rodolfo Benitez (2nd R) shakes hands with Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) lead negotiator Ivan Marquez, during a joint declaration in Havana, January 19, 2016. STRINGER / Reuters

By Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-AZ

This week President Obama welcomes his Colombian counterpart, President Juan Manuel Santos, to the White House at a crucial juncture in Colombia’s 215 year history. Our South American ally stands on the precipice of a landmark agreement that could bring the longest-running conflict in our hemisphere to a peaceful conclusion.

For Colombian-Americans like me, this is a moment of both excitement and apprehension.

While key elements of how a potential peace deal will be implemented still need to be resolved, it appears increasingly likely that 2016 will see the FARC guerillas finally lay down their arms, bringing half a century of bloodshed to an end.

This breakthrough deserves to be celebrated, not just in Colombia, but here in Washington. At a time when seemingly every aspect of our foreign policy, from combating ISIL to relations with Cuba, is the subject of intense partisan debate, Colombia represents something increasingly elusive – an American success abroad that members of both parties can feel good about. And at this critical moment, Democrats and Republicans should come together to ensure that America is just as committed to helping Colombia secure peace as we were to helping Colombia wage war.

"America stood with Colombia in war; we should stand with Colombia in peace."

Since the 1960s, leftist guerrillas have fought a bloody insurrection that spilled from remote mountains and jungles to the streets of Bogota. Over the course of the conflict, more than 220,000 lives have been lost and over 6 million people have been forced to flee their homes. From rural farmers to urban professionals, Colombians of all walks of life have suffered, becoming victims of kidnappings, sexual violence, forced disappearances and assassinations.

By the late 1990s, Colombia was at risk of becoming a failed state. Since that time, however, the country has witnessed a remarkable turn-around. The murder rate, once among the highest in the world, has sharply declined, while economic growth has markedly improved. Now, after decades of senseless violence, the Colombian people are on the verge of ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity.

Americans unfortunately know firsthand how hard it is to defeat a determined, resilient insurgent movement. Yet, the Colombian government under President Santos’s leadership is close to achieving just that. As he has been quick to acknowledge, this success owes much to the resolute support of three successive American administrations.

Beginning with President Clinton and continuing under Presidents Bush and Obama, the United States has provided generous assistance totaling more than $10 billion to aid the Colombian people in their struggle against drug traffickers and illegally armed groups. At a time when our foreign policy debates have become increasingly politicized and dangerously short-sighted, Colombia offers a powerful example of the returns that a long-term, bipartisan commitment can deliver.

But while American dollars and American military hardware have enabled the gains that brought the FARC to the negotiating table, far more important was the willingness of the Colombian people to bear the burdens necessary to turn their country around. Colombia took real ownership of the fight against the FARC and paid the price, both in blood and treasure, to lay the foundations for peace. And here there is a clear lesson for American policymakers—to defeat violent insurgents we need partners whose commitment equals or exceeds our own. Yet, even more than their courage in combat, it is the moral courage of the Colombian people that deserves our lasting respect. The decision to set aside 50 years of physical and emotional wounds in order to pursue a negotiated settlement stands as a testament to their capacity for healing and forgiveness.

While a final accord is close at hand, significant challenges will remain if and when the deal is signed. FARC rebels who have spent their entire lives fighting the Colombian military will need to be reintegrated into society. At the same time, combatants on all sides will be subject to a lengthy and difficult truth and reconciliation process. Colombia also has more landmines than all but a handful of countries on earth and these dangerous munitions that will need to be dug up and destroyed.

That’s why the time has come for a renewed, long-term American commitment to Colombia. Now, just as the peace process is beginning to bear fruit, would be the very worst moment to reduce our financial assistance to our partner. Indeed, American aid is critical if the deal with the FARC is to be fully and effectively implemented. After decades of equipping Colombia to fight, we have both a moral obligation and a vested interest in helping the Colombian people to rebuild. We must redouble the robust, bipartisan support which, at long last, has brought Colombia to the precipice of peace.

America stood with Colombia in war; we should stand with Colombia in peace.

Ruben Gallego is a Democratic congressman from Arizona, and he is Colombian-American.

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