Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. Photo via Flickr user cancilleriadeperu
Peace has long been a goal in Colombia, but until recently, no one had a very good idea of what it might look like.
While negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest and oldest left-wing rebel group in the country, have been ongoing since November 2012, the texts of preliminary agreements on political participation, “illicit crop” production, and rural development were only made available to the public last month.
The policy proposals have been framed as historic, if only in comparison to the retrograde state of current affairs. By guaranteeing political participation rights for the disenfranchised poor, the hope is to encourage democratic (rather than armed) dissent. Incentivizing small farmers to move away from coca production is seen as a more effective way of neutralizing drug funding for the conflict than the current aerial fumigation and manual eradication approach. And bringing much-needed social investment to the war-torn Colombian countryside is considered a necessary precursor to any lasting peace.
All of that sounds good on paper. What remains to be seen is whether Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has tried to conflate his signature peace talks with an end to Colombia’s armed conflict in general, is more interested in the appearance of progress or a comprehensive approach to the underlying causes of Colombia’s notorious violence.
“Today I can say to the international community that we are closer than ever to achieving that peace,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in remarks to the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, one day after the preliminary proposals’ release. “The process we’ve pushed forward with the FARC guerrillas in Havana these past two years has been serious, realistic, dignified, and effective, and has concrete advances.”
This iteration of talks—the third in the past 30 years—has indeed shown greater promise than previous tries at rapprochement with the guerrillas. Negotiations still have to tackle the issues of reconciliation for victims and transitional justice for demobilized rebels, the two most complicated topics on the agenda. And any overarching accord to emerge from Cuba will have to hold up to a national—and possibly mandatory—referendum vote, along with the wild right-wing fearmongering that would almost certainly precede it.
Still, Santos, re-elected this summer on the strength of a peace platform, has a mandate to see the process through. And the FARC leadership, battered by a long, CIA-aided campaign of covert strikes, doesn’t have sufficient leverage to stop it this time around. Favorability and confidence ratings for the talks have dipped below 50 percent in recent polls, but political and social leaders I spoke to share a sense that the country is on the verge of a historic moment. (Various officials from the right-wing Democratic Center party, the only major political force in Colombia opposed to the talks, did not respond to my requests for comment.)
Opposition senator and longtime human rights activist Ivan Cepeda, one of Santos’s most vocal critics in Congress, heralded the documents’ release as a sign of the peace talks’ “maturity.” Diogeno Orjuela, the international relations director of Colombia’s largest labor union (CUT), and Cesar Pachon, a farmer and prominent spokesman for the national Agrarian Strike protest movement, agreed that removing FARC from the picture would open space for their constituents' needs to be met.
Alberto Yepes, the director of Coordination Colombia-Europe-US, an international human rights network, told me that demobilizing the guerillas would force the country to confront the longstanding neglect and abuse traditionally justified within the context of the conflict. Even Senator Jorge Robledo, one of the few leftist leaders who declined to advocate for Santos during his recent runoff election against Democratic Center candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, was emphatic in the need to “get rid of those guns.”
So there’s plenty of hope invested in the prospect of peace with the FARC. But if the release of the preliminary agreements tells us anything, it’s that the closer the country gets to a peace deal, the more doubts appear.
As Camilo Gonzalez Posso, president of the Institute for the Study of the Development of Peace, told me, much of the material in the agreements is already covered—in theory, at least—by laws that have been in place for at least 20 years. If there hasn’t been sufficient political will to make them a reality yet, why should civilian populations that have suffered as a result believe anything will change now?
More glaringly, the 2005 Justice and Peace Law, which promised demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country’s largest paramilitary group at the time, has largely failed to produce much in the way of justice or peace. Those members who did demobilize have been reluctant to give up the politicians, military commanders, and business, landowning, and drug trafficking interests that supported Colombia’s devastating legacy of state-sponsored right-wing terrorism. Those who exploited or avoided the process altogether instead integrated into the national crime syndicates, or bacrim, that now control Colombia’s drug, prostitution, extortion, and illegal mining trades.
Would a left-wing guerrilla demobilization be any more effective? What happens once demobilized paramilitaries are released from prison starting this year? And what’s to stop disenchanted rebels from joining up with the bacrim or the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second-largest leftist insurgency, whose repeated requests for a peace process of its own have so far yet to materialize into talks?
What could peace with the FARC possibly do to curb the rising power of these international criminal networks, and the prominent role they continue to play in Colombia’s human rights crisis? More to the point, in the absence of a global shift away from a disastrous supply-side drug war, does taking down any individual group really make a difference?
If the government doesn’t “fill the vacuum of rule of law and state presence, somebody will,” Adam Isacson, the senior Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, told me. But the Santos government, presented with similar opportunities to assert itself, has proved either unwilling or unable to implement systematic solutions to Colombia’s longstanding inequalities and injustices.
Santos’s victims restitution law, a legal reparations framework for Colombia’s 5.7 million internally displaced people, has been mired in bureaucratic stagnation and the continued non-compliance and active hostility of the original victimizers. The military is still killing people with impunity. Government efforts to intervene in devastated bacrim hotspots like the Pacific port city of Buenaventura and Choco, the Afro-indigenous department to its northwest, have barely scratched the surface. September was the worst month for death threats against human rights workers in years and the government just announced its special at-risk protection unit, tainted by a series of recent corruption scandals, is no longer financially viable.
After 50 years of an internecine civil war that has claimed over 200,000 lives, victimized millions more, and saddled Colombian society with one of the great lingering human rights burdens of our time, a peace deal with the FARC now seems a question of when rather than if. What that will actually mean for Colombia's depleted underclass is still unclear.
Steven Cohen is a freelance journalist based out of Colombia and former editor of Colombia Reports.