Ending War in Colombia: A Latino Giant Conversation with U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego

By Juan Andrés Misle

We are here with Congressman Ruben Gallego, the U.S. Representative for Arizona’s 7th District. A Harvard-educated former Marine Reserve, Congressman Gallego also holds the distinguished honor of being the country’s first Colombian-American member of Congress. In December of last year, Congressman Gallego along with 5 co sponsors introduced a bipartisan resolution in the House of Representatives supporting the agreements negotiated between the Colombian government and Farc rebels to end the longest conflict in the Americas. Congressman Gallego welcome and thank you for joining us.

RG: Thank you for having me.

Congressman Gallego, last Thursday, the Colombian Congress approved a historic bill ending 52 years of conflict in Colombia. You’ve been very supportive of this  process. Tell us why.

RG: Stability in Colombia means stability in the western hemisphere. Obviously I have cultural connections that are emotional and I’d like to see Colombia succeed and prosper as a country that should. But when you have a country that is consistently under the pressure of rebellion or any other economic pressure that comes with that, a country like that is not going to have the time, space and breadth to actually be able to fulfill its potential. We’ve come to a point in history where Colombia is a stable democracy with no need for an armed conflict to resolve economic ills that can be fought at the ballot box. We are supportive of this because at the end of the day, America and Colombia are tied. We have historical ties that have gone back now for hundreds of years, and we want to see our friends succeed. And we know they can.

I’m curious to know, what are your thoughts on the way it was approved last week? Many colombians feel that after the original agreement was rejected in last month’s referendum that this move was misreading the message sent on October 2nd. Would you have preferred a second referendum to approve this revised version?

RG: I went out to observe the actual plebiscite. I was in Bogota in different areas observing with the international community, and I think it’s very difficult to actually truly get a sense of the people of Colombia through a plebiscite. You certainly saw areas of Colombia that have been most affected by the conflict that were most for the peace plans versus areas that did not. At the same time, you have tepid turnout and some support in Bogota, but in the Antioquia area there was high turnout and high opposition. That combination I think is not necessarily representative of the full spectrum of the voice of Colombia. Colombia has a long established constitutional democracy and their elected officials are very close to the ground in understanding the needs of colombian@s.

Humans Right Watch for instance, who was critical of the original agreement celebrated the approval of the revised agreement

RG: For many of us, we were very worried about Humans Rights Watch’s opposition during the original plebiscite. We do not believe here in the United States in allowing perfect to be the enemy of good. I believe that Humans Rights Watch has also discovered that in the same situation.

What do you think are the most important challenges facing this agreement? Is there anything you believe it could improve on?

RG: I think the agreement is a good starting point on paper, it’s the execution I think that’s going to be extremely important, especially the economic development that needs to be rolled out in this process. As is the reintegration of Farc rebels into society so that enlisted men and women are able to find jobs, get education, and make themselves productive members of society instead of finding themselves using the skills they know that could end them up in the narco or criminal world. The justice reform systems that are going to try to adjudicate what occurred during the war has to also be closely watched. A lot of us are very hopeful that this is a process that is going to bring closure to colombian@s that have been affected by the last 50 to 60 years of war. But at the same time, we hope to see that colombian@s feel it’s fair and impartial, and not seen as just a show.  

The United Nations reported this past week an increase in killings of human rights activists in Colombia. This uptick is worrying a lot of people that it could be a repeat of the paramilitary and state violence directed at demobilized insurgents during the 1980s. What do you believe the U.S should do, if anything, to prevent a return to war in Colombia?

RG: I think we need to strengthen the institutions in Colombian civil society. Making sure that courts and prisons are properly equipped to adjudicate who is guilty and who is not. I’m not just talking on the Farc side, we’re talking in general. When you have these types of vigilante actions, a lot of it is because many people feel they aren’t getting justice from government. The United States government and other allies should try to help modernize the Colombian court systems, their forensic systems, and the ability to prosecute people – and prosecute them in a matter that we understand that while nothing is foolproof, that you’re actually prosecuting people who are  supposed to be in jail and giving them every right and protections under the civil rights of the nation and as we understand human rights up across the country. As for the targeting of activists, whether it’s for labor rights, environmental rights, or human rights, we have to keep a consistent watch as friends and allies to make sure that the government is properly protecting those citizens and use every method as possible.

What are your thoughts on the in-coming Trump administration’s approach to Colombia? Do you have any concerns of a potential shift in policy? Or will there be areas of mutual-agreement?

RG: I think it’s very hard to say. I don’t think Trump actually has any South American policy. I don’t think he has the thinkers – so far that I’ve seen – that are actually going to have a South American policy. The best I think we should hope for right now is the continuation of what we’ve seen under “Plan Colombia” where we had bipartisan support in the Senate and the House that would be a check on anything either unwarranted or unplanned shifts in policy that Trump may have. If we continue at least in the policies that started under Clinton and Bush, I think then we’ll be fine. I think it’s going to be very difficult to change that course rather quickly.

Congressman Ruben Gallego is the U.S. Representative for Arizona’s 7th District and the first Colombian-American member of Congress. Congressman Gallego, thank you for you time and speaking with us.