— Not every private equity executive has a pair of battle-scarred AK-47s hanging on his office wall.
But Bernard Aronson does, reminders of an eventful career as a leading diplomat and negotiator in Latin America.
One rifle was the gift of a commander of the leftist guerrilla forces in El Salvador
, the other from a leader of the rightist contra army in Nicaragua
— two countries where he helped end years of bloodletting.
Now Mr. Aronson, who runs a Washington-based private equity firm called ACON Investments, has returned once again to the diplomatic field, serving as President Obama’s special envoy to peace talks between the government of Colombia
and that country’s largest and oldest rebel force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The negotiations, to end a guerrilla conflict that is now more than 50 years old, have been proceeding in fits and starts since at least as far back as 2012. They are now entering a crucial stage, with the two sides facing a self-imposed March deadline to reach a final agreement.
Mr. Aronson, 69, has played a quiet but crucial role, entering the talks early last year at a time when they appeared in danger of stalling.
He has met repeatedly with FARC negotiators in Havana
, where the talks have been taking place, as well as with the government’s negotiators. He has also met with President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and with Álvaro Uribe, a former president who is one of the most vocal opponents of the peace talks.
“Bernie Aronson has an unparalleled understanding of how to be firm when you need to be, and at the same time how to develop the empathy that builds trust,” Sergio Jaramillo, one of Colombia’s lead negotiators, said in an email.
As a Democrat who served as assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs under the first President George Bush, Mr. Aronson has made both peace and war.
He was involved in carrying out Mr. Bush’s invasion of Panama
in 1989, and he was a strong supporter of the contras in Nicaragua in their fight against that country’s leftist Sandinista government. While never holding a position in the Reagan administration, he did help write an important speech for Ronald Reagan praising the contras as freedom fighters in a worldwide battle against Soviet
But Mr. Aronson also helped bring about the demobilization of the contras after the Sandinistas lost elections in 1990. And he played an important role in negotiating the 1992 peace accord that ended the civil war in El Salvador.
In a recent interview in his Washington office, a few blocks from the White House, Mr. Aronson said that in the Havana talks he has applied the lessons he learned in those earlier episodes. His most important contribution has been simply to treat the FARC negotiators with respect, he said, perhaps cracking the stereotype of the arrogant imperialist. The change in the Obama administration’s posture toward Cuba, an important FARC backer, has also had an impact.
“Maybe,” he said, “they see that the enemy is not the enemy they once thought.”
Mr. Aronson played a similar role in the El Salvador talks, where he won the confidence of the guerrilla commanders. It was the most prominent of those commanders, Joaquín Villalobos, who presented Mr. Aronson with one of the rifles displayed on his office wall.
The gun is mounted on a wooden plaque on which Mr. Villalobos wrote in marker, “To Bernard, with the respect and friendship that peace has given us.”
The other rifle is mounted on red velvet, in a frame. Its firing mechanism was disabled by United Nations peacekeepers in 1990 when the contra army demobilized.
Mr. Aronson, soft-spoken but insistent, with Bernie Sanders-style white hair, reflected on these earlier episodes and on the long road of the Colombia talks, evoking a conversation with Mr. Villalobos after the El Salvador peace deal.
“I asked Joaquín, ‘Could we have made peace earlier?’” Mr. Aronson recalled. “And he said, ‘I don’t think so, because we had to change our minds.’ ” Mr. Aronson added, “I think the same is true with the FARC.”
The most fundamental change of mind, Mr. Aronson said, was deciding that peace was preferable to more fighting. But there were other steps along the way.
A major breakthrough occurred in September, when the two sides agreed on a framework for how rebel fighters would be punished for crimes committed during the war and then set the March deadline for a final deal.
With those pieces in place, Mr. Santos and the FARC’s top commander, Rodrigo Londoño, who uses the nom de guerre Timochenko, met in Havana and shook hands before the cameras, in a show of their commitment to reaching an accord.
News outlets in Colombia reported that Mr. Aronson was at the historic meeting, and a name card was set out for him at the table with the presidents. But he was not there. It was Yom Kippur, the holy Day of Atonement in the Jewish faith, and Mr. Aronson, who is Jewish, was at home, fasting. “It was my Sandy Koufax moment,” he joked, referring to the Hall of Fame pitcher for the Los Angeles
Dodgers who refused to play on the holiday.
While significant hurdles remain, the two sides have never before come this close to ending a war that has killed more than 220,000 people and driven millions from their homes. Mr. Santos was in Washington on Thursday, where he met with Mr. Obama in what emerged as a celebration of the impending peace deal.
Mr. Aronson grew up in Rye, N.Y. His father, Arnold, was a key figure in the civil rights movement, playing a critical role in mobilizing Jewish and white supporters. Arnold Aronson helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and the younger Mr. Aronson, a high school student at the time, was there in the crowd.
“I remember my father being on the phone, getting reports of which of his friends had been beaten up on the Freedom Rides,” Mr. Aronson said.
Mr. Aronson’s career would seem impossible today, with the overheated partisan atmosphere in Washington.
After college he was a Vista volunteer in a poor region of Kentucky
, then went on to work for an insurgent group within the United Mine Workers that ousted its longtime president, Tony Boyle. He later became a speechwriter for Vice President Walter F. Mondale, and then for President Jimmy Carter, and worked in the office of the White House chief of staff.
After Mr. Reagan was elected president, Mr. Aronson became the policy director for the Democratic National Committee, and while there he became involved in the angry polemics around American intervention in Central America. Mr. Aronson backed military aid for the contras, but wanted them to commit to protecting human rights.
When Mr.Bush became president in 1989, Mr. Aronson was given the job of assistant secretary of state, with backing from members of both parties in Congress.
It was a busy time, when Latin America was regularly in the headlines. There were the Sandinistas, the contras, El Salvador, Panama, massacres in Haiti, drug lords threatening the stability of Colombia and the Latin American debt crisis.
Mr. Aronson helped forge a bipartisan consensus that led to ending the contra war, and there was bipartisan backing for the peace process in El Salvador.
“There was a tradition of Democrats serving in Republican administrations and vice versa, especially in foreign policy,” said Mr. Aronson. “Bipartisanship wasn’t just some airy idea,” he added. “It was an effective policy that turned these divisive issues into win-wins.”