SANTIAGO — The date June 23, 2016 will go down in history. While in Europe, Brexit signaled the moment the United Kingdom began burning its bridges with the European Union, on our continent, we were building them with the signing of a peace deal in Colombia. The reverberations may be felt across the Americas.
For continental observers, there was an element of déjà vu in all this. What we had in Colombia — more than 50 years of guerrilla activity — wound up as a tail end of the Cold War that refused to breathe its last breath. Fidel Castro's rise to power in Havana in 1959 helped extend and entrench the Cold War on this side of the globe. Cuba was a key player in the global standoff, as it joined the Soviet camp in a world already dividing its loyalties between communist and capitalist systems.
From that period, guerrilla movements began offensives in several countries, prompted either by the Cuban missile crisis, or by the need to meet the demands of disgruntled societies or electrified by Che Guevara's image and calls for social justice. In the case of Colombia, the movements continued long enough to end up corrupting themselves and sharing the domain of drug traffickers.
The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) managed to maintain a very large army. On more than one occasion I recall a Colombian president telling us "the Colombian army may not by itself be able to successfully face off this guerrilla force." Here the Cold War was hot, with its countless deaths and piecemeal destructiveness.
Other regional states were living a similar fate in the 1970s and 1980s — the decade of dictatorships this side of the world — where repressive regimes were receiving aid from a United States fearful of the other side's victory. That in turn made sectors of the Latin American political Left perceive force as the way to impose their ideas. In Central America, dialogue finally won the upper hand at the end of the 20th century and managed to impose peace.
But Colombia saw the arrival of the 21st century with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army) still active. Listening to Colombian presidents make dramatic speeches at summits, we often thought we should be able to react and aid Colombia in some way, though I was always worried at the continent's inability to resolve the conflict.
Colombian President and the top leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) shaking hands — Photo: Liu Bin/Xinhua/ZUMA
In Kosovo, another tragic episode prolonged by the incapacity of its protagonists and the Europeans to find a solution, the United States had to intervene to impose peace. I worried that if unable to resolve the FARC conflict ourselves, supra-regional powers might intervene to do so, to their own and the region's detriment.
Now a signed commitment by both parts to end fighting, along with the FARC's promise to disarm, constitute the beginning of the end of this lengthy war. Let us praise the Colombian president's political courage in initiating the talks that have led us to this landmark in time, wherever it may lead.
The roles played by Cuba and Norway as "guarantors" and by Chile and Venezuela as "companions" entrusted with talking to both sides have also helped shape an accord.
Cuba's role is particularly interesting. As the source and inspiration of revolutionary movements in the last century, it became the host country for peace talks. Certainly, much has passed recently that points in one direction — the U.S. decision to renew ties with Havana and belief that more can be attained by building bridges with the Cuban regime.
The effects of this change become visible every day, from renewed talks with the EU to hosting the historic meeting between Pope Francis and Russia's Patriarch Kirill, an event meant to begin healing the 1,000-year rift between the Eastern and Western churches.
A new diplomacy is emerging in our region, with myriad potential benefits. Look at Panama, which recently inaugurated its expanded canal. Just 30 years ago it was difficult to predict if or when it would control and administer the waterway. Now, the completion of an immense engineering project has made the little republic a crucial passage for global shipping.
But globalization imposes its will not just on physical projects but also on the essence of human interaction and cooperation. Bridges must be built to ensure globalization has clear, commonly accepted rules to ensure everyone benefits from new technologies and shortened distances.
On this side of the world, June 23 was a day filled with optimism about what we can achieve when we move closer together. This makes it all the more difficult to gaze across the ocean and understand what Europe is going through. This is not the Europe we want, or the world needs.
*Ricardo Lagos is a lawyer and economist who served as president of Chile from 2000 to 2006.