Colombia: The possibilities opened by the peace agreement

On June 23, at the end of a four-year long peace negotiation, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government signed a ceasefire agreement in Havana. In cities around Colombia, people left signs on the streets reading: “R.I.P. Civil War, 1964-2016”. There are good reasons to date the civil war’s origin even further back, all the way to 1948. In either case, this is a historic moment, the signing of a peace to end one of the world’s longest-running conflicts.

Like many other guerrilla movements in Latin America the FARC took up arms in part to defend peasant lands from powerful interests: local big landowners, the state, and multinational corporations, and their military and paramilitary forces. The peace agreement they signed contains a mandate for land reform, as well as for restitution for the victims of the conflict, a transitional justice process for guerrillas who committed crimes during the war, and a process for the guerrillas to enter Colombia’s electoral political system.

The process isn’t finished: the final agreement will be signed in Colombia. It will have to be approved in a referendum, and legislation to support it will have to be passed in the Colombian Congress. But the FARC said on June 28, in a sign of how far the process has advanced, that they would not return to war even if the people rejected the accords. There are also other cautions, caveats, and limitations to the process to dampen the understandable celebration.

We have been here before. There have been two peace processes that took years, became very popular in Colombia, and ultimately failed. In the 1980s, a peace process saw thousands of revolutionaries associated with the guerrillas enter politics through the Patriotic Union (UP) party only to be killed by state-backed paramilitaries. From 1999-2002, peace talks ran at Caguan, while the Colombian government built up its military through Plan Colombia. They ended with the Colombian Army driving the FARC out of their safe zone, and another decade and a half of massacres, assassinations, and kidnappings.

While it is the largest, the FARC isn’t the only guerrilla group in Colombia. The National Liberation Army (ELN) is also in a peace process with the government, but it is in relatively early stages. Until that process is also concluded, the armed conflict cannot be declared over.

By every measure, the deadlier force in Colombia, and the bigger problem, is paramilitarism. The paramilitary strategy was introduced in Colombia from the very beginning of the civil war, with US support. Counterinsurgency doctrine starts from Mao’s dictum that the guerrilla is a fish and the people are the water; paramilitaries are supposed to drain the water (“drain the swamp”, is the way it is written in the US). In Colombia, “draining the swamp” has involved massacres against peasant and indigenous communities, campaigns of assassination against progressive politicians, union activists, journalists, human rights and women’s rights activists – anyone seeking any sort of positive change in the country has been targeted.

It is important to understand that despite their self-declarations, these paramilitary forces did not arise in response to the guerrillas, but operate according to their own political logic of terror and control of the population. An example: some of the worst paramilitary massacres were committed after the 1991 Constitution, which guaranteed indigenous and Afro-Colombian rights to land. Paramilitaries slaughtered their way down the pacific coast as the number of people killed grew to thousands each year and the number of displaced people grew into the millions. It is much more difficult to claim territorial rights guaranteed by the constitution when you have been forced to flee your territory.

The evidence linking these paramilitaries to the US-backed Colombian Army, to Colombian politicians, to narcotrafficking, and to multinational corporations, is voluminous.

The leader of the camp dedicated to spoiling the peace agreement is ex-President Alvaro Uribe Velez, who initiated a theatrical peace process to demobilize the paramilitaries in 2003. The paramilitaries spent the next few years demobilizing, bringing rusty weapons to photographed ceremonies and getting special benefits like the right to keep the profits of their crimes. Despite all this demobilizing, the paramilitaries are as active as ever. During Uribe’s tenure as president, a scandal called “para-politica” or “para-Uribismo” emerged, in which paramilitaries revealed signed pacts between their groups and elected politicians in Uribe’s party. He also had the ‘wiretapping scandal’, which revealed that Colombia’s intelligence agency was wiretapping government officials, journalists, and supreme court judges. Uribe continues to have his own intelligence network and has leaked things on twitter about the peace process well before they were public. To get a flavor of what the paramilitaries have been up to recently, read a communique from Colombia’s social movements (see for example this one translated by the Colombia Support Network:

Like many ongoing conflicts, Colombia’s civil war has been deadlier for civilians than combatants. Unarmed social movements argued throughout this peace process (and previous ones) that the unarmed people who have suffered the most from the war should have a say in the peace. Just this past April, in Northern Cauca, Afro-Colombians marched in defense of their traditional lands against mining encroachment and were met with riot police beatings and tear gas. The movements understand very well that inequality, and the violence required to sustain it, did not begin with the armed conflict with the FARC and will not disappear after the FARC lay down arms and enter politics.

But even looking at it with no illusions, the peace process can be celebrated for the possibilities it opens.

Paramilitarism may not be a mere reaction to the state-guerilla confrontation, but it has certainly fed from it. Popular repudiation of specific guerrilla tactics, such as kidnapping civilians, also helped create a stronger right-wing constituency. The Colombian civil war became a laboratory for counterinsurgency, paramilitarism, and covert action that devastated not just Colombia, but other countries as well. Colombian paramilitaries popped up in countries from Venezuela to Honduras. Counterinsurgency experts took the Colombian experience on their resumes and went to Afghanistan and beyond. With peace in Colombia, all of this could change.

On the other side, the state’s first line of defense against every social movement has been to accuse it of collusion with the guerrillas. An unarmed organization would then be treated like a military target. Without the armed conflict as a pretext for the state, Colombia’s movements could end up on a more level political playing field in their struggles for land, union rights, and social justice.

The fine print will have to be read carefully and there will be many traps and risks ahead. But a negotiated end to the Colombian armed conflict has been a demand of Colombia’s unarmed social movements for many decades. They have struggled for it and many have died for it. This peace is their victory, as much as it is that of the two parties who signed the accords.

First published at TeleSUR English:

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.