A breakthrough in Colombia’s peace talks

On Sept. 23, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cuba to sign an agreement with the FARC on transitional justice. “Peace is close,” he told the press. An agreement on justice and reparations for victims was one of the most contentious areas of discussion, and one on which Santos and FARC had exchanged some harsh public words over recent months. The FARC announced their willingness to lay down their arms; the possibility of a truth commission has also been discussed. Coming at one of the most dangerous points in the talks, and on one of the most difficult areas of negotiation, this agreement is a breakthrough moment.

The 40th round of negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla organization ended on August 30th. Ten days before, the FARC had declared another unilateral ceasefire, one of many that have taken place during these multi-year negotiations. Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, the ELN, have also been in secret negotiations with the government and may begin an official negotiation soon, according to Colombian newspaper El Tiempo (Sept 7).

There continue to be signs of significant investment in peace by the government and reasons for optimism about an accord. A package of constitutional reforms to facilitate a peace accord was scheduled to be debated in Colombia’s Congress on Sept 11.

El Tiempo also reported an unusual step taken by the U.S. Ambassador, who on September 8 hosted Colombian government representatives as well as ex-president Alvaro Uribe Velez to try to win Uribe over to the peace accord. Uribe has been the leader of the opposition to peace, running his own intelligence network, leaking information, and posting inflammatory tweets. While Uribe was in office, from 2002-2010, his policies aligned seamlessly with the U.S. of the War on Terror. If the U.S. Ambassador is, as El Tiempo reports, trying to coax him into acting less of a spoiler, that is a sign of strong support for an accord from the U.S.

But there are negative signs as well. During the previous unilateral ceasefire declared in July, the FARC killed Afro-Colombian activist Genaro Garcia – an act for which FARC took responsibility and vowed to punish its perpetrators. A coalition of social movement groups marched in Genaro’s name at the end of August, demanding a bilateral ceasefire and a role in the negotiations.

The Indigenous movement also suffered a major blow at the hands of the state when, on Sept. 15, Feliciano Valencia was detained by the court on a charge of “kidnapping” a soldier, which carries a sentence of 192 months. In fact, Valencia is one of many Indigenous leaders in Northern Cauca, a territory that has suffered tremendous military aggression over the years. In the incident for which Feliciano is being charged, the Indigenous foiled an aggressive plot by an armed soldier, tried him, punished him according to their traditions, and released him. Their rights to do this are protected by the Colombian constitution: this is an illegal persecution of an Indigenous leader, occurring in the middle of a breakthrough in the peace process.

At the end of June, after the breakdown of a ceasefire and a series of battles, a Gallup poll showed a drop in public support for the peace process, with a nearly even split over support for a military vs. a diplomatic solution (46% favoring military, 45% favoring a negotiated solution), and only 33% believing that the peace process would successfully end the armed conflict. Agreements on transitional justice, ratification, and how to actually end the armed conflict are all ahead, and none of these are easy, as the mainstream think-tank the International Crisis Group argued in July.

More dangerous than any of these, however, are the regional dynamics. The Colombia-Venezuela border remains closed at the time of writing and, although here, too, there are encouraging signs of diplomacy, media operations in Colombia are adding heat to the conflict. So too, in this arena, is Colombia’s ex-president Uribe. The Colombia-Venezuela border has been militarized and dangerous for more than a decade. In 2004, when Uribe was in power, he pursued an arms deal for a large number of Spanish-made tanks to be deployed to the border. Then president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, convinced the incoming Spanish government to cancel the deal and de-escalated the tensions, although there have been armed border conflicts and closures in the decade since.

The military dimension of the long-standing border problem is linked to the paramilitary problem, given the long historical links between Colombia’s military and paramilitaries. Paramilitary forces control the smuggling trade on the Colombian side and have suborned Venezuelan border guards on the Venezuelan side, to the point where smuggling has done severe damage to Venezuela’s economy. The Venezuelan government has enacted an operation to stop smuggling, but the problems on the Colombian side remain. The current border crisis erupted when Colombian paramilitaries attacked Venezuelan soldiers on the border on August 19.

Colombian paramilitarism is responsible for much more than the violence on the border, however. It is as old as Colombia’s armed conflict, beginning in the 1960s with advice from a U.S. military delegation. Colombian paramilitaries are responsible for the worst atrocities of the civil war, for most of the displacement, and most of the killings of noncombatants. They are also intertwined with Colombia’s military and intelligence services and brought large numbers of politicians under their control: this was exposed during Uribe’s presidency and called the Para-Politica scandal. Colombian paramilitaries have been seen in other countries in the Americas: Colombia, having developed expertise in the violent repression of social protest with U.S. help, has been exporting it. The Colombian paramiltiaries were supposed to have disarmed long ago, and their links to the Colombian establishment are officially denied. The Colombian government calls them "criminal bands" (Bacrim) and claims to be fighting them. Because of this official denial, it will be difficult to resolve the issue at the negotiating table. The paramilitary strategy is one that the U.S. has found invaluable since the 1960s. It will not disappear even if an accord is reached.

What really might sink the accord, though, are changes in regional politics. What brought Colombia’s government to the negotiating table in the first place probably had to do with not wanting to be isolated as a right-wing, U.S.-manipulated holdout in a continent that was taking steps in the direction of independence and social progress, with progressive regimes in many countries and Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution leading the group. Today the Bolivarian revolution is threatened like never before, and left writers like Raul Zibechi argue that "the cycle of Latin American progressive politics appears to be coming to an end," soon to be replaced with a "repressive right wing environment." If Zibechi is right, then the Colombian government need not sign an accord: it need only wait for the rest of Latin America to catch up to its own "repressive right wing environment." If he is wrong, and there is still some progress left in progresismo, there is still a chance for peace.

But if it does come, Colombia’s peace, however welcomed, will be a violent and unequal one, as I have argued before. Many problems will remain, but peace still deserves support. With peace there are greater possibilities for democratic struggle and civil resistance.

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Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction.