It is now about four years since the unofficial initiation of the ongoing peace process between the FARC and the Colombian government (secret approaches were made starting in October 2010), and over two years since the official opening of talks based on a “General Agreement” signed on August 26, 2012. There have been thirty rounds of negotiations to date, which have brought negotiators from the government and the FARC to Havana.
The Washington Office on Latin America has created a website, colombiapeace.org, that collects documents and media reports in a single place, and has even arranged them on a remarkably complete, and ongoing, timeline (http://colombiapeace.org/timeline2014/), which we can use to begin to understand what is happening with the peace process.
The process is being supported by an unusually expansive set of actors. The Cuban government is hosting the talks. The United States government, the United Nations, most of the governments of Latin America, the Venezuelan government, are all supportive. Effusive statements have been made. Uruguay’s President Pepe Mujica last year called the peace process “The most important thing happening in Latin America”. In July 2013, Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez suggested that the process could be opposed by “only idiots, those who do not love their country”. In November 2013, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa went further, suggesting that “only psychopaths” would boycott the process.
Speaking of which, despite the remarkably wide-ranging support for a negotiated solution to the conflict, Colombia’s former president Alvaro Uribe Velez is staunchly opposed, as is his political party (which lost at the polls earlier this year, in an election which effectively became a referendum on the continuation of the peace negotiations). Whether the Argentinian and Ecuadorian presidents were thinking of Uribe when they mentioned “idiots” and “psychopaths” is, of course, unclear. Uribe’s attempts to spoil the peace process go far beyond running against it in an election, however, a point to which I will return.
The talks have gone on for a long time, but considering that the beginning of the conflict is sometimes dated to 1964, and other times all the way back to 1948, it is perhaps reasonable to expect that a peace agreement would take a few years to achieve. So far, they have resulted in three draft accords, which were made public at the end of September and are published on the joint website, mesadeconversaciones.com. All of the accords are linked, as might be expected given the principle that “nothing is agreed until all is agreed”. The draft accords on solving the illicit drug problem, on rural development, and on political participation, include many proposals that were brought to the table by social movements, and if implemented, would represent social progress, including land reform and agrarian reform, the extension of campesino land reserves (which are already legal under Colombian law as of 1994) and guarantees for political dissent.
The occurrence of the talks, and the content of the talks and of the public discussions around the talks, have also brought some positive elements to public politics. In the years preceding the talks, Colombia saw the rise of an organized movement of the victims of the conflict. The Colombian government has focused on the FARC’s victims, but the point for the negotiations is that delegations of victims have come to the talks, and that many of the victims have mobilized for peace. The talks have created an atmosphere in which the FARC has taken responsibility for crimes, committed to stop kidnapping civilians for ransom, and seen its leaders face some of the people it has committed crimes against. The government, which has been forced to send some of its politicians and military officers to jail in past years over scandals (to which I will return), has also shown a degree of seriousness in the talks. Last year, president Santos changed the military high command, and in the wake of the agrarian strike, he changed his entire cabinet as well. In his public statements about the talks, Santos has shown a degree of political maturity that US allies rarely have, admitting that it is only with enemies that peace can be made: “We’re trying to give our enemies, in this case the FARC, a bridge to a dignified way out–lay down their arms and enter the political arena.” This contrasts with statements by peace’s most famous opponent, Uribe, who constantly invokes Al Qaeda (and probably will soon be comparing FARC to ISIS).
Uribe is a formidable threat to the peace process, because he is a powerful member of the Colombian establishment with important elite and, it must be admitted, significant right-wing popular support. Perhaps a few sentences should be spent on reminding readers who Uribe is. A document published by the National Security Archive, a 1991 report from U.S. DEA officials in Colombia, called Uribe “A Colombian politician and senator dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin Cartel”, “a close personal friend of Pablo Escobar”, “linked to a business involved in narcotics activities in the US.” When he was president of Colombia, Uribe survived a number of scandals, but the one that got closer and closer to him was called the “para-politica” scandal, or sometimes the “para-uribismo” scandal, which broke when military officers and paramilitaries spoke to the media about pacts they made with politicians to cleanse areas of leftists, unionists, indigenous people, and peasant movement leaders. The paramilitaries were also major narcotraffickers, operating the business on a much more massive scale than the FARC’s involvement in illicit cultivation. Uribe was also president during the “false positives” scandal, in which the Colombian military killed helpless peasants, posed them with weapons, and claimed they had scored kills against FARC (the current president, Santos, was defense minister during the scandal).
Uribe has made his political career on being an opponent of peace, and had his biggest political successes doing so. The last time the Colombian government and FARC negotiated for peace from 1999-2002, they agreed on a demilitarized zone under de facto FARC control, centered on San Vicente del Caguan. In this same period, in 2000, the US approved Plan Colombia, a multibillion ($1.3 billion was US money, most was Colombian money) boost to the Colombian military ostensibly for counternarcotics. Plan Colombia, and all of the covert counterinsurgency programs that accompanied it, helped scuttle the peace initiative. When in 2002 the FARC kidnapped an important senator, the government went on the offensive, sensing a change in public opinion. Uribe capitalized on this change in his presidential run that year, ran as the anti-FARC candidate, and won.
On the other hand, Uribe is not opposed to peace agreements on principle – he initiated a peace process with the paramilitaries in 2002, which, given the state backing of the paramilitaries (and the specific backing by Uribe’s political base and allies), was something of a peace process between two branches of the same organization. That ‘peace process’ was begun some 12 years ago, and featured some ceremonial handovers of old weapons by paramilitaries who then ‘demobilized’. Paramilitary violence against the state’s opponents has continued more or less unabated.
Uribe’s stance towards the ongoing negotiations is one of outright sabotage, both overt and covert. The most recent scandal (in August 2014) was about a hacker, Andres Sepulveda, who worked with Uribe supporters to spy on negotiators in Havana. While Sepulveda spied on the FARC, he said, others from the military and police spied on the government negotiators. Last year, Uribe tweeted the location from which two FARC negotiators were going to be extracted – revealing his continuing connections with the military.
Another important threat to the peace process might end up being media polls. Over the years, the polls have shown a majority, sometimes a plurality, in favor of a peace agreement, but they have also shown majorities in favor of FARC leaders going to jail, and majorities against FARC leaders entering politics. A current principle of the negotiations is that those who were deeply involved in crimes against humanity will have to submit to justice and do jail time, while most would receive suspended sentences and be able to enter politics. The talks almost ran out the clock this time, and would have, had Uribe’s party been elected. If polls, which aren’t always reliable, start to show a shift away from support for peace and Colombian politicians follow them, the chance for peace might be lost.
If the negotiations succeed, they would be a positive step for Colombia. The outcome could include some positive agrarian reforms, guarantees for political opposition and dissent (badly needed in a country where thousands of people have been killed yearly for participating in unions, peasant organizations, indigenous movements, or opposition political parties), and an end to the FARC’s kidnappings of civilians and indiscriminate attacks. It could create openings for further democratic struggle and reform.
But this peace process will not end violence in Colombia, because Colombia’s establishment, and its North American patrons, have been pursuing two wars for all of these decades: the war against the FARC (and ELN), and a generalized war on the poor. It has been a long time since the poor were represented by the guerrillas and their armed struggle. Today, they have a huge variety of their own organizations, all of which have suffered tremendous violence at the hands of the state and paramilitaries. While the Colombian government acknowledged this, when the Basta Ya report was published last year as an “uncomfortable truth”, with Santos talking about “state agencies’ collusion with illegal armed groups, and the security forces’ acts of omission at some stages of the internal armed conflict”. Santos said at that time that “the state must investigate and punish this conduct in order to comply with the victims’ rights to truth and justice.” But the negotiations don’t really cover this war, which continues. Colombia still has millions of internally displaced people, who have been displaced from their lands, lands which have been repurposed for various mega-plantations and other megaprojects. They were displaced through paramilitary massacre. Colombia also is still a very deadly place to be a union leader, human rights activist, indigenous person, Afro-Colombian, or peasant leader. In 2008, on the campaign trail, Obama opposed a free trade agreement with Colombia “because the violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.” There continue to be dozens of murders of unionists every year.
But the most devastating site for the war whose peace is not being negotiated is Buenaventura, a port city on the Pacific coast through which much of the country’s cargo travels. Buenaventura is currently famous for its chop houses, where the paramilitaries chop people into pieces, alive, and which has led thousands to flee the city in terror. Human Rights Watch has a report on the chop houses from March 2014. These horrors have nothing to do with the conflict between FARC and the state. They are committed by the supposedly demobilized paramilitaries, and are over control of the important territory of the port city. A peace deal with FARC, if signed, will do nothing to address them. At best, it might give some more breathing room to those in Colombian society who struggle against violence.