Colombia Peace Talks: An Opportunity for Latin America and Beyond

Latin America’s turmoil, political crisis, and unrest have found the best example in the never-ending Colombian conflict. While the rest of the subcontinent assisted in recent years to economic growth, political change and to a positive future outlook, on the other Colombia still struggle to achieve stability, security for its population and the end of the civil conflict that is now on for 50 years.

Recently Colombia returned to the main news following the kidnapping of an army general by the Farc, then released after government negotiations. Nevertheless, this reopens the debate on the conflict and on the effectiveness of the latest peace plan launched in La Havana in 2012.

Colombia, in common with other Latin American nations, experienced a revolutionary movement fuelled by the inequality, segregation and poverty that ravaged these societies especially in the fifties and sixties. Following the Cuban revolution and the rise of Marxist movements across the continent, in 1964 a group of Marxist revolutionaries including Manuel Marulanda founded the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia Farc, followed by the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional, ELN.

These movements for decades fought under the common framework of a socialist revolution within the traditional guerrilla’s praxis, obtaining control of vast areas of the country, and even establishing popular support. Nevertheless, especially in the 80’s and 90’s, when the revolutionary furore declined and popular support decrease, the conflict started to change from a traditional Marxist revolutionary struggle against the state into a war where soon other protagonists joined: drug cartels, paramilitaries and other criminal gangs.

In a country where the presence of the state has always been weak, the result has been a war on multiple fronts, with the civilian population caught in the crossfire and often deliberately targeted for collaborating with one side or the other. Human rights advocates blamed paramilitaries for massacres, disappearances, cases of torture and forced displacement while rebel groups are behind assassinations, kidnapping and extortion. The governments have not always acted in a clear and legal way, often been colluded with paramilitary groups and repressing civil organisations.

Some attempts to reach a solution have been made along the years, although have all failed for various reasons. The only successful precedent was the M-19 guerrilla’s demobilisation in March 1990 under President Virgilio Barco. Despite the assassination of its presidential candidate, Carlos Pizarro, in April that year, the M-19 party came third in the presidential elections and many former M-19 rebels also helped to draft the current constitution. In 2011, former M-19 member, Gustavo Petro, was elected mayor of the Colombian capital, Bogota, considered the country’s second most important elected post.

Different story is for the peace talks; the first agreed ceasefire was signed by the government of Belisario Betancourt and Farc in 1984, but collapsed two years later when 22 rebels are killed by the military and the rebels retaliate with an ambush on soldiers. Another attempt was made in 1991 with peace talks held in neighbouring Venezuela and later moved to Tlaxcala, Mexico, where they failed in 1992. Between 1992-1998 Farc are at their strongest in numbers, area occupied and military capability when they kidnap about 200 members of the police and military. This paved the way for the third peace accord attempt made in 1998 by the government of Andres Pastrana, which agreed to grant the rebels a safe haven the size of Switzerland. This has been widely regarded by many analysts as a serious mistake: by 2002 Farc rebels have been able to reorganise and use the safe haven to import arms, export drugs and build up its military strength. The talks came to an abrupt end after the rebels hijacked a plane in February 2002 and kidnapped Senator Jorge Gechem. Three days later, the rebels also seized presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. The peace process was widely seen as a complete failure and led many Colombians to believe that no dialogue was possible with the rebels.

However, successful was at least the demobilisation of the right-wing paramilitaries, with roots in vigilante groups set up decades ago by landowners for protection against rebels. The main group was the AUC ,Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, which officially has demobilised in 2003, leading to at least 31,000 paramilitaries handing in their weapons under a peace deal. Nevertheless, that plan opened a scar that it is ultimately becoming the main point of attrition in the recent talks between government, rebels and the public opinion. In 2005, a controversial law was passed that made paramilitary fighters eligible for reduced jail terms, of no more than eight years, if they gave details of their involvement in torture, killings and other crimes. Critics argued that paramilitaries guilty of serious human rights violations could end up serving only reduced jail terms. This opened up a series of accusation of complicity between government and paramilitaries to divert the plan and favour a lenient approach. Eventually, the extent of the paramilitaries’ influence over local, regional and national politics came to the light in 2007 in a scandal dubbed the “parapoliticos”, where members of congress were jailed and dozens more politicians investigated for links to the AUC.

In this high and lows of previous attempts, signs of a change start to appear that led inevitably to the recent talks. The rebels started to lose power and, although Farc is still Colombia’s largest guerrilla group and one of the world’s richest rebel movements, according to the Colombian military there are now some 8,000 fighters, down from 16,000 in 2001. The rebels, who a decade ago controlled nearly a third of Colombian territory, now mostly operate in remote rural areas or through hit-and-run attacks. Several Farc commanders have been killed or captured in the last few years: in 2008 senior rebel leader Raul Reyes is killed in a bombing raid and Farc founder Manuel Marulanda dies of natural causes. Nevertheless, the rebels are by no means defeated and have demonstrated great capacity to adapt. The second largest rebel group, ELN, has also saw its numbers almost halved in the last 10 years, announcing that it is willing to enter into peace talks shortly after the negotiations between the government and the Farc began. The government itself, lead now by Santos consider the solely military option as unviable and counterproductive.

Sources from the Unit for Attention and Reparation of Victims of the Colombian government estimates that 50 years of conflict have killed at least 220,000, more than five million are internally displaced, 6.2 million registered as victims.


The Peace Talks: Could This be the Right Time?

The past failures inevitably favoured the hard liners within the government who found a voice in the former President Alvaro Uribe, in office from 2006 to 2010. Uribe pursued a hard-line stance against left-wing guerrillas while making tentative of peace overtures. This period saw military action against the rebels as a pre-condition to force them to the table of negotiations. Nevertheless, even this strategy did not work out and his successor, Juan Manuel Santos, took office in 2010 vowing to seek an end to the conflict. In October 2012, the government and the biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), launched peace talks.

President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed that initial informal discussions with the Farc started shortly after he took office in August 2010 and then developed into direct exploratory talks with the rebels’ representatives in the Cuban capital, Havana, in February 2012. These discussions concluded with the signing of an agreement that set out a six-point agenda for the formal negotiations which were launched in Oslo in October 2012 and began in Havana the following month.

President Santos made it clear from the beginning that military operations against the Farc will continue until a final deal has been reached, marking a difference with previous peace processes where ceasefire and safe haven were agreed, which many believe were used by the rebels mainly to regroup and strengthen. At the same time, the decision to continue with the military operations has also tested the Farc’s real intention to negotiate and reach a deal. The rebels’ decision to continue contacts even after government forces killed Alfonso Cano, the rebel leader who started the negotiations, in November 2011, has been presented as proof of their willingness to secure a deal. In addition, Farc announced that they would stop their policy of kidnapping people in order to show goodwill although after the recent seizing of an army general in November 2014 they clarified that that policy applied only to civilians. Farc also continued its attacks on military targets, seen as a measured response for government stance against a ceasefire.

The agenda approved in the negotiations covers six issues:

  1. Land reform
  2. Political participation of rebels
  3. Drug trafficking
  4. Rights of victims
  5. Disarmament of the rebels
  6. The implementation of the peace deal.


Scepticism, political hijacking, memories of failure and real hopes

Currently the real significance and effects of this plan is under discussion and subject to different interpretations. Negotiators in the Cuban capital have reached agreements on agrarian reform, political participation for Farc and how to jointly fight the illegal drug trade. The land reform, which they said would result in a radical transformation of rural Colombia, provides for the creation of a land bank to reallocate land, especially that which was seized illegally during the decades of conflict.

In November 2013, the two sides agreed on a political future for the rebels, should a peace deal be reached. This included guarantees, conditions and support for the creation of new political parties, a sort of revival of the M-19 plan.

In May 2014, the two sides agreed on a plan to deal with the illegal drug trade. The Farc, which controls large patches of rural Colombia, is believed to be partly funded by money generated by the illegal drug trade.

In June 2014, Farc and government negotiators in Havana announced they would set up a truth commission to investigate the deaths and human rights violations during five decades of conflict. This follows decades of legal battles by relatives of kidnapped Colombian soldiers demanding justice for them.

Although the pace has not been as fast as declared, many regard this plan as more realistic if compared to past attempts. At least 4 out of 6 points of the agenda has seen an agreement, never in the past talks have gone such distance and Farc for the first time is not advancing requests for a radical transformation of Colombia’s political and economic structure. Numerous opinion polls in recent months have suggested that a large majority back dialogue hoping to see an end of the conflict, but just over half say they are optimistic about the outcome mainly due to previous negative experiences and recent developments.

Detractors argue that the negotiators have left the most difficult issues at last, namely how Farc will lay down its arms and whether commanders will face prosecution for atrocities. Thousands of people have joined protests in Colombia against a possible amnesty for Farc rebels as part of a peace process. As it happened during the AUC demobilisation, common Colombians and relatives of victims fear that a lenient process will undermine the quest for justice leaving open scars that inevitably could resurface even if a peace is achieved. In addition, the issue is also exploited for political gains by different antagonists of President Santos. Many of the marchers were supporters of former President Alvaro Uribe, and the rallies in several cities across the country were organised by the Colombia Quiere movement backed by his Centro Democratic Party.

Uribe calls on the army to support the protests by fighting and defeating the guerrillas, saying that this is the only way to avoid the country being delivered to terrorism. Uribe and his allies have argued that the Farc should answer for killings, kidnapping and drug trafficking; they have also accused President Santos of overlooking rebel atrocities in order to drive through the peace process and gain electoral visibility.

Nevertheless, this request for army involvement is not only part of Uribe’s belief but also a response for what Colombians perceive as deteriorated security. While Colombians welcome the process that could lead ultimately to the demobilisation of rebels, on the other there is fear that the void of power will be filled by common criminals and drug cartels. One of the factor alimenting this opinion is the emergence of what the government calls Bacrims, namely criminal bands, which are involved in drug trafficking and extortion. These groups emerged after the demobilisation of the AUC paramilitaries in 2006. Although violent crime and kidnappings related to guerrillas and government have decreased in recent years, is the cocaine trade that has been the main motor of the recent violence and fear. The eastern border area has seen a growth in criminal gangs which smuggle subsidised goods and drugs between Venezuela to Colombia. The fear is that following a peace accord many rebels may join illegal activities or gangs may exploit the absence of the state institutions in ex guerrilla’s strongholds. On the other hand a peace accord, with the shift of resources away from battling the rebels and towards fighting common crime, could increase citizens’ safety. Particular importance, as part of the peace process, will assume the task on how to include ex fighters into the new life whether by joining military services or community groups, as to strengthen the democratic process. Criminal gangs often attack civic and community groups seen as a challenge to their authority.

Another point of concern is that even if the government signs a peace deal with the Farc, it will still have to deal with Colombia’s second largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). President Santos made clear to ELN that he wanted to see actions rather than words and demanded the 3,000-strong rebel force to release the hostages it still holds, and stop its attacks on civilians and the security forces before the government would engage in negotiations. On 28 August 2013, a day after the rebels released a Canadian mining executive they had held hostage, President Santos announced to be ready to talk to the guerrilla group as soon as possible. In June 2014, the government and the ELN announced in a joint statement that they had been holding exploratory peace talks since January and had agreed on some points of an agenda to discuss in formal talks.


Effects on the economy

President Santos has predicted that peace will add at least 2% annually to the already booming economic growth. While Colombia’s economy has been growing at a rate of about 4% in the past decade, analysts say that growth could have been doubled if it had not been for the armed conflict.

But Colombia, as per other Latin American economies, has still unresolved issues. Unemployment continues to be a major problem, which in 2011 was the highest in the whole of Latin America. Although the government announced last May that the unemployment rate had dropped to its lowest level in 14 years, at 8.8% it remains almost double that of neighbouring Ecuador. According to 2012 World Bank figures, Colombia is the seventh most unequal country in the world, with inequality levels similar to those found in Haiti and Angola. In addition there will be the cost of reconstruction which the peace commission in the Colombian senate recently put at $45bn (£28bn) over the next decade. Major investments are needed in areas such as land distribution, infrastructure and industry, as well as in local government and agriculture, if peace was to be achieved in areas which for a long time have been neglected by the state. In addition, while poverty levels have dropped from 47.7% in 2003 to 32.7% in 2012, income inequality, which fuels social tension, has remained virtually unchanged. The countryside has suffered most from the presence of the guerrilla, with a lack of investment in infrastructure and education, with poverty levels well above 50% according to Colombia’s national statistics office.

However, the peace agreement could start reverting this deficit and redirect resources in rebuilding the economy which will benefit from investments and renewed confidence in the market once stability has been achieved. A peace accord would create a context for sectors of Colombian society who still view each other with distrust, such as unions, businesses, and the security forces, to start working together. A peace deal would also allow more space for leftist social movements too often stigmatised as guerrilla supporters and to express their concerns about the key problems affecting Colombian society. The possible transformation of rebels groups into political parties could not only offer an alternative to address social problems in Colombia but also may see Colombia joining the “turn to the left” and the socialist revival that has been successful in recent years in other countries without resorting to arms.


The International Scenario

Colombia civil war and its effect, finally, cannot be considered only as an internal matter. The effects and the possible consequences will have undoubtedly repercussions in other Latin American countries and beyond. The guerrillas role and the government military actions backed by the US has created tensions with neighbouring Ecuador and Venezuela, that consider the Plan Colombia sponsored by Washington an attempt to militarise the subcontinent and cover actions aimed at destabilize these countries. While the common Marxist and socialist ideology my explain the support that Farc and ELN have received by the leftist government of Ecuador and the Bolivarian revolution, especially during Chavez presidency, it is mainly the US paranoia with this experiments spreading to other countries that led to consider a support to Colombia not only as a purely matter against drug trafficking.

The US played an ambiguous role on the subject. It is true that more than 90% of all cocaine on American streets comes from Colombia directly or indirectly, and the US administration was keen to tackle the supply at source. Since 2000, Washington has spent several billion dollars on training and equipping Colombian forces, and providing intelligence to help tackle drug traffickers and eliminate coca crops. But Human rights groups, rebels and civil organisations say the Plan Colombia in reality was a disguise to assist Uribe in his military campaign against rebels whilst not taking care of paramilitaries or disbanded group trafficking in drugs. Actions by Colombian army has led to border tensions culminated on several occasion to a near declaration of war especially with Venezuela, accused by Bogota to support and funding the rebels, while Chavez accused the government of staging actions aimed with US support to destabilize the Venezuelan government. The fact that drug trafficking is assuming an international dimension is also testified by the effect on Mexico that is struggling to contain the drug cartels. For many analysts there is a link between the rise of Mexican cartels and the deteriorated security in Colombian areas known to be the haven of trafficking.

The peace plan if it will work out will need to address not only how to decommission Farc and Eln but also to make sure that their areas of operation will not fall under the control of local criminal gangs, drug cartels or foreign criminal organisation. The Plan Colombia under this danger may assume a total different significance as all the parties involved will benefit by tackling the issue at source. The only problem will be to ensure that strategic and geopolitical calculations will not interfere within this framework and it is just on this where the leftist governments of South America have more than one concern looking at recent developments.


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