Few Miamians have seen the devastating effects of Colombia's 52-year war with the FARC on a more human level than Philippe Houdard. For a decade now, Houdard's nonprofit, Developing Minds Foundation, has worked with former child soldiers forced into brutal combat by FARC's leaders.
He's seen the bullet wounds and stabbing scars inflicted on kids who were pulled into fighting for the rebel group, and he's also seen the psychological damage that lasts far longer.
So as Colombia's government and the FARC prepare to sign a historic peace accord today — the first step toward ending the hemisphere's longest-running war — Houdard, like many in Miami's huge Colombian-American community, is struggling to see past the remnants of brutal violence to the promise of peace.
"Emotionally, it's very difficult to stomach this agreement. It's highly imperfect," says Houdard. "But then again, all peace agreements are imperfect. If you're going for perfection, you'll never get a deal done. The question is can you live with the imperfections? In this case, I have to support the agreement, even though it's difficult and painful to see the terms."
Others are less willing to hope for the best, like Miami Dade County Commissioner Juan Zapata, the first Colombian-American elected to the board.
"So many Colombian presidents have pushed for this kind of peace deal because it sounds good, but you in the meantime they do nothing about the root problems. It's not ideology, it's economics," Zapata says.
In the U.S., no city is watching the history-making accords closer than Miami, where for decades Colombians have fled for economic reasons — and in many cases to escape the violence of the war with the FARC. The decades of conflict between the leftist group, the government and right-wing militias have left more than 220,000 Colombians dead and forced 7 million to move.
As of the 2010 Census, 114,000 Colombian-Americans lived in Dade County — by far the biggest expat community in the nation.
Peace talks have finally moved forward under President Juan Manuel Santos, who has been meeting FARC's leaders for four years in Havana to hash out a deal. Last night, both groups announced they'd finally agreed on a plan.
International leaders have widely praised the accord. " We have witnessed, once again, that a sustained commitment to diplomacy and reconciliation can overcome even the most entrenched conflicts," President Obama said.
But in Colombia, the reaction has been far less excited. Many are furious at the leeway FARC's leaders will get under the deal, which aims to turn the guerrilla group into a political party — and even guarantees them seats in the parliament.
Houdard — a tech entrepreneur who co-founded Pipeline Workspaces — says he also finds it difficult to swallow those concessions. "I've seen hundreds and hundreds of these former child soldiers forced into fighting by FARC, so it's hard to feel good about the same leaders in that group serving as legitimate political actors," he says.
That's one reason, in fact, that the deal is far from done. The Colombian people will have to approve the peace deal in a vote scheduled for Oct. 2. Former President Alvaro Uribe is campaigning hard against the plan.
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Zapata says he would vote against the deal and that many Colombians in Miami he's spoken with would do the same. "Most Colombians living outside Colombia are very skeptical," he says. "How can you reward the FARC's violence with political gains? How do you connect those two? I just think it sets a dangerous precedent."
Still, Houdard says despite all his concerns he hopes the deal passes.
"I tread very lightly on this question, because a lot of the people who feel very strongly in opposition have been directly affected in ways that I haven't. I'm careful in how I think and talk about it, because for someone who has had family members kidnapped, who has suffered directly, has been displaced, has had to leave and come to U.S., those are very deep wounds," Houdard says.
But, he adds, "I come at this from the position from our wok, where we see how much these kids suffer. My hope this process will bring that kind of suffering to an end."