Does FARC’s “terrorist” designation by U.S hurt Colombia’s peace?

In a rare interview with the Colombian media, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, came down harsh on the former guerrilla of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), for their non-compliance with many aspects of the peace agreement.

The international diplomat also stated indirectly, that the White House would not remove FARC from the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list until it proves compliance with the agreement. “ is not a signature thing; it’s a fact thing. came to the list by facts, and similarly, they need to leave by facts,” Whitaker told El Tiempo.

Among a list of accusations, FARC, according to the Ambassador, has not diligently cooperated with the government in the effort to pursue drug trafficking; neither have they fully disclosed their financial assets. This puts them in breach of the so-called Final Accord.

Shortly after this broad-ranged interview, FARC’s former senior commander, Rodrigo Londoño – also known by his nom du guerre “Timochenko” – wrote a letter to President Juan Manuel Santos, accusing the government of failing to comply with the peace agreement. According to Londoño, the Colombian government still keeps hundreds of former FARC combatants in prison despite amnesty laws established by Special Justice Tribunals (JEP).

However each side wants to point fingers at each other. The fact that FARC will remain on the U.S. State Department-issued FTO list begs the question of what it means to the U.S.-Colombia relationship, given that FARC has launched itself as a political party and is poised to participate in next year’s general elections.

The mere fact that Washington decides not to take FARC off the list has enough legal and political ramifications that warrant a closer look, especially given that both the UK and EU have either suspended or removed FARC from their own terrorist-designation lists.

According to the Final Accord, FARC is guaranteed a minimum of five seats in the Senate, and five seats in Congress. Although this former insurgency has to run for legislative elections next year to claim these seats, it is foreseeable that FARC will become an inherent part of Colombian government.

Although U.S. law prohibits any government entity or persons engaging in commercial activities with a designated FTO, the mere presence of FARC in Colombia politics will not necessarily create a political or economic crisis between Washington and Bogotá as some might fear. Even if the election happens before the revocation of FARC’s FTO status, the U.S. is unlikely to dismiss FARC as a legitimate political group. Rather, it would simply block any transactions in the United States involving FARC assets.

This is exactly how Washington deals with Hezbollah – a Lebanon-based terrorist group designated by the U.S. State Department since 1997. Hezbollah has become a part of Lebanese government since 2005. The U.S. did not and will unlikely dismiss Hezbollah as a political party because it is an influential player in the Greater Middle East region, and was democratically elected by Lebanese people. However, the U.S. is actively freezing all assets held by Hezbollah members stateside and blocking any transactions made.

Moreover, different from Hezbollah, FARC’s future in Colombian politics does not create nearly as much trouble to the U.S as Hezbollah. With the ever-lasting Iran-U.S. political tension, Hezbollah, backed by Tehran, poses a much more imminent and real political threat to Washington than FARC will ever do. Therefore, keeping FARC on the terrorist group list, even after they start participating in Colombian politics is more a question of political rhetoric, than genuine international political strategy.

For President Santos, removing FARC from this list has a two-fold meaning: first, it sends a clear message to Colombians – and FARC itself – that the international society supports this agreement, which would ease the transition process for the Colombian government; second, it means U.S. persons or entities could provide “material support” to FARC members’ transition from militants to civilians, which is urgently needed in Colombia – but currently prohibited by U.S. law.

The remarks by Ambassador Whitaker are loud and clear: despite President Santos’ preference of removing FARC from the FTO list, the ultimate determination from the White House is to win the War on Drugs. Without a complete eradication of the coca harvest, and trafficking to the U.S., FARC has no chance of a clean slate.

But keeping FARC on the list does not necessarily serve the United States’ best interests. The message sent to FARC is severely harsh – even though you have disarmed under the supervision of the U.N, and successfully moved on to form a political party, you are still prohibited from engaging in any commercial or political activity with the U.S.

This undoubtedly undermines FARC’s premise that it only seeks to “win votes through words, rather than weapons” now, and the process of eliminating drug trafficking involves an immense effort from all parties – not just FARC. The National Liberation Army (known as “ELN”) is the country’s 2,000-strong Marxist guerrilla, and has also contributed substantially to the drug problem. A bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government on October 1 might turn into another peace agreement for the Santos’ government. By keeping FARC on the terrorist list, the U.S. could send a discouraging signal to ELN’s plans for peace.

The U.S government’s stance on not fully backing the Colombian peace accord could also fuel anti-American sentiment when FARC decides which candidate – or political coalition – to back in a race for the presidency. By having their pro-peace agenda stigmatized as a “terrorist” one, FARC may actually find itself garnering more populist support, and at a momentous time for the region, in which President Trump has not ruled out a military solution with Colombia’s neighbor – Venezuela.

By keeping FARC designated as a FTO, Washington could indirectly be contributing to greater polarization of Colombia’s already highly-polarized political landscape. The White House may want to think this through.