Is peace in Colombia finally at hand?

October 8, 2015

Gabriel Chaves reports on the latest agreement between Colombia's government and rebel army, and explains the historical context for the complex terms of the peace talks.

AT DAWN on September 23, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos woke up the nation with a thunderous tweet: "I will make a stop in Havana for a key meeting with FARC negotiators with the purpose to accelerate the end of the conflict, #PeaceIsNear."

As the day went by, Colombians learned that Rodrigo Londoño (aka Timochenko), leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), had also arrived in Cuba to join Santos for the announcement. Both leaders gave speeches calling for reconciliation, and Santos declared a six-month deadline to finalize the agreement.

The excitement Colombians experienced that day cannot be underestimated. The closest event of this magnitude in recent memory is the now-infamous 1999 episode of the "Empty Chair", when the president was stood up by former guerrilla leader Manuel Marulanda Velez (aka Tirofijo), who excused himself citing "security" reasons.

While Tirofijo had valid historical reasons to distrust the government, the episode would arguably become the worst political disaster in the history of FARC. Colombians uninstructed on the history of the conflict felt that FARC was mocking them, a memory that still lingers today.

The beginning of Colombian peace talks in 2012
The beginning of Colombian peace talks in 2012

This was the symbolic strength of the handshake between Santos and Timochenko, joined by Cuban leader Raúl Castro as host. This was a moment of joy that has pushed many people to believe that the peace process is irreversible.

Beyond the emotional theatrics, the question remains: what exactly has been accomplished? The September 23 agreement is merely a conclusion of one of the items of a six-point agenda, albeit the most delicate: the rights of victims and the punishment of armed actors in Colombia's decades-long civil war.

The first four items of the peace process which have now been completed are: I) rural development, II) political participation, III) illicit drugs, and now IV) justice for victims.

The final two items are: V) ending the armed conflict, and VI) implementation of the agreements.

The parties have started to discuss the fifth issue, which involves the abandonment of arms by FARC and reintegration of former guerrillas to civilian life. The six-month deadline is needed to reach an agreement on the last two points of the agenda and to finalize details on the first four points.

IT IS important to know the origin of the conflict to understand the context of these six agenda items.

Colombia has never really experienced a period free of political violence since its formation as an independent republic, and historians differ about which particular episode is the genesis of the current war, depending on their particular political agenda. Nevertheless, there seems to be an acceptance that El Bogotazo of 1948 was a key point of inflexion on this permanent history of violence.

El Bogotazo began with the murder of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, a popular Liberal Party politician who likely would have become president if he had lived to run for election. Gaitán was a champion of peasants who were suffering the repression of conservative politicians and police forces, and he famously denounced the role of the United Fruit Company in the massacre of about 2,000 banana workers on the northern coast, earning him the affection of the incipient Colombian working class.

Gaiítan's murder sparked riots that led to thousands of deaths. Two institutions were born amid the ashes and destruction of El Bogotazo: The elites present in Bogota at the Pan American Conference created the OAS, which would become an essential tool of U.S. imperialism during the Cold War; in the mountains of Tolima, a young Tirofijo would join a peasant self-defense militia, which would grow to become the mighty FARC.

For FARC sympathizers, this history justifies the guerrilla struggle in several ways. Then and now, the state supported the theft of land by use of violence and intimidation. Gaítan's death represents the reluctance of the elite of relinquish power in case of a probable democratic defeat.

The Colombian oligarchy, they argue, will not permit the ascendance of a real challenge to its power. Their conclusion is that there was no other choice than fight or flee from an intransigent oligarchy. From this point of view, it is logical to put the issues of land rights of peasants and guarantees for safe political participation as the first two points of the peace agreement.

EACH ITEM of the peace agenda deserves a detailed discussion.

I) Rural Development: The dynamics of colonization of the virgin rain forest (the so-called "agrarian frontier") have not changed much since the times of Gaitán. Landless peasants venture deep into the virgin woods and clear the land for small-scale agricultural production. Behind this vanguard of colonization come the wealthy "latifundistas," who push down peasants' fences and intimidate them further into the jungle.

This occurs with the complicity of agents of the state. The strategy reached barbaric levels with the development of paramilitary groups in the service of big capital investors. The number of people who have been forcefully displaced from their land has reached close to 6 million, giving Colombia one of the largest displaced populations in the world.

To solve this cause of the conflict, the land agreement gives a special role to the Zonas de Reserva Campesina (Rural Development Zones) and other forms of collective ownership of land. The government has committed to supporting the farming economy, promoting equitable access to land, accelerating the recognition of land ownership and taking measures to improve the living conditions of people living in rural zones.

This isn't an agrarian reform where latifundios are expropriated and distributed to landless peasants--it creates mechanisms to facilitate access to land.

This is occurring at the same time that the government is implementing a "law of land," which is intended to restore land to victims of dispossession. The worrying aspect is that land restitution activists are being assassinated, and those who are given land are finding a harder economic environment, due to the free trade commitments of the government.

If bankruptcy forces farmers to sell, the restitution of land would only serve as a legitimizer of further land concentration. The peace process helps reinforce that legitimacy.

II) Safeguards for Political Participation: This point of the agenda is a direct answer to concerns of FARC members for their safety once they lay down their weapons. There are a variety of historical examples that help explain the guerrillas' lack of trust in the political establishment, most famously, the case of Unión Patriótica (UP).

After a 1984 ceasefire agreement with then-President Belisario Betancur, several FARC members founded the UP in alliance with members of the Colombian Communist Party. Almost from its inception, the UP was the target of a relentless extermination campaign by drug lords and the armed forces. In a period of 18 years, 5,000 members of the UP were assassinated under the criminal negligence of the state, which never allocated resources for their protection.

Today, FARC members will not demobilize unless they obtain guarantees for their safe involvement in electoral politics. That is the importance of the second point of the agenda. In addition to committing to the protection of electoral candidates, the agreement also incorporates the right to protest and social mobilizations.

Why do many people think that this peace process will be different from previous ones? Because of the mutual recognition of both sides that they cannot eliminate their adversary.

During the last decade, the government has spent millions of dollars trying to exterminate the guerrillas, and although it has had successful hits, it recognizes that its strategy has reached a point of diminishing results. For its part, FARC has had to come to terms with the fact that it is struggling on condition of infimum survival.

Both parties need the conflict to be over, and FARC is not asking for anything that the establishment is unwilling to concede.

III) Illicit drugs: There has not been a better engine for the integration of Colombia in the international economy that its participation in the global cocaine trade. All sides of the armed conflict participate in the drug trade to finance its operations, and FARC is known to participate in the first steps on the cocaine trade in direct contact with peasants growing coca plants.

In the third part of the agenda, the FARC has promised to disclose its knowledge of the cocaine trade. In addition, FARC members will participate in manual eradication and crop substitution of illegal crops.

IV) The Transitional Justice Agreement: This is the agreement that was just announced, and it is arguably the trickiest aspect of the talks.

As a signatory of the Rome Statute, Colombia is prevented from granting amnesty to perpetrators of crimes against humanity. The challenge is to balance the justice that victims deserve with the desire for ending the conflict, because it is known that peace deals do not last if victims aren't given some measure of justice.

However, guerrilla leaders were not willing to sacrifice their freedom until very recently, and many army members fear becoming objects of judicial persecution. After convening a panel of experts selected by both sides, an agreement on transitional justice was reached.

The essential feature of the agreement is the creation of a Special Jurisdiction for Peace composed of Colombian and international judges. In this new court, the members of FARC could receive lighter sentences of five to eight years if they accept responsibilities for their crimes.

The office of the prosecutor general will help evaluate whether combatants are effectively cooperating with truth-finding. The privileges on reduction of penalties will be lost if combatants are perceived to be uncooperative and penalties will be harsher (20 years).

The punishments will include restriction of freedom, but not necessarily jail times for guerrilla members. This will allow FARC to help in the process of de-mining the country and manually eradicating illicit crops.

There will be amnesty for political crimes, but not for crimes against humanity. Even drug trafficking may be covered by amnesty. On this regard, it is a welcome development that Bernie Aronson, the U.S. special envoy for the peace process, has stated that Colombia has the right to choose whom to extradite.

Under the new deal, the Colombian state recognizes responsibility for dismantling paramilitary groups. Until now, the government has refused to accept that paramilitary cells remain active even after the demobilization of paramilitary groups during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe.

In this regard, there will be participation of former paramilitaries on the truth commission since the government promised symmetric justice to their victims. Former paramilitaries will benefit, too, since they will reach a definitive closure on their pending legal cases. It is uncertain whether military personnel will present cases on the special jurisdiction since Congress recently approved legal privileges for army members. This is being seriously disputed by human rights organizations.

THE STRENGTH of the Transitional Justice Agreement is that both parties are submitting its ranks to special justice systems. It has been well-received by many human right lawyers, UN officials and members of the Obama administration, but some international organizations such as Human Rights Watch have expressed worries that it will result in impunity for serious crimes and these issues do need to be resolved.

The loudest condemnation, however, has come from the followers of former president Alvaro Uribe Velez, who was once the darling of the international press but is now being looked at with increasing contempt. They still have the possibility of derailing the peace process, but their opinions are having less weight on public opinion.

The FARC and the government still have the delicate issue of deciding what to do with the weapons in FARC hands. For the moment, the FARC are refusing to let them go, but the parties have six months to find a formula that satisfies both.

At this time, we only have a brief summary of the content of the justice agreement. The government negotiators argued that there were concepts in need of further elaboration, while FARC wanted the deal to be made public promptly.

Regardless of these latest disagreements, it appears that the clouds of war in Colombia might finally be clearing.

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