As Colombians celebrate the end of more than half a century of civil war, FARC rebels are making history as they gather to approve the peace deal and start down the road to transforming into a legal political party for the first time in their 52-year history.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, kicks off its 10th National Conference Saturday, widely heralded as the last such event with arms before the rebel force demobilizes as part of the landmark accords now ushering in a new era in the home of the longest armed conflict in the Americas.
“Every conference has its own characteristics, this one right now has significant importance,” Timochenko told the alternative news agency Nueva Colombia upon his arrival in jungle area of La Macarena for the conference. “Everything we are doing now is going to help us move forward toward the objectives we seek.”
The core purpose of the conference is for the FARC leadership to officially ratify with their ranks the final peace deal between the rebel army and the government, unveiled in Havana, Cuba, on Aug. 24 after nearly four years of negotiations. Delegates will debate the agreements and vote. Key issues on the table also include discussions about rural reform — a founding demand of the FARC and cornerstone of the peace deal — and political prisoners, natural resources, and the environment, among other topics, according to a draft agenda seen by Reuters.
The conference, which runs from Sept. 17 to 23, is the first of its kind to be fully open to civilians and media. The event will wrap up just days before President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Timochenko are scheduled to officially sign the much-awaited deal on Sept. 26.
The peace accords will then be put to a popular in a plebiscite on Oct. 2 that will ask Colombians whether or not they accept the final deal. The vote, expected to pass, is aimed at lending democratic legitimacy to the agreements that we soon spur concrete action in Congress.
Now the Hard Work of Building Lasting Peace in Colombia Begins
FARC soldiers traded their guns for hammers and shovels ahead of the conference, working furiously to set up marquees, remedy muddy roads, and finish final preparations for the week-long meeting. The group is estimated to have some 7,000 members after declining from nearly 20,000 combatants at its peak.
In a statement inviting national and international media to cover the event, the FARC heralded the conference’s “historical importance” for being the last conference with arms that will “give way to the transformation of the FARC into a legal political movement.” The conference will be held in southern Amazonian region in the municipality of San Vicente del Caguan and will bring together hundreds of FARC delegates and 50 national and international special guests.
“Today we are on the threshold of building peace,” chief FARC negotiator Ivan Marquez told Nueva Colombia, stressing that the signing of the peace deal is symbolic, but alone does not epitomize peace. “The signing of the final agreement is not the arrival point, it is the departure point from which all of us, all Colombian people, must seek change and transformation.”
“Our voice is the voice of the people,” he continued as the members of the Havana peace delegation arrived ahead of the conference. “Claiming our rights, claiming social justice, and claiming peace.”
First held in 1965, a year after the rebel army formed, the FARC’s clandestine conferences have historically been the main decision-making hub of the rebel army, from strategic planning to the development of core organizational documents. At times, the secret gatherings have even been held virtually when military offensives were too intense to meet in person.
The most recent guerrilla conference took place nearly a decade ago after the meetings became more infrequent compared to the rebel army’s early years, when five conferences were called in the first decade. The Ninth National Conference in 2007 came on the heels of a failed peace process with the government of President Andres Pastrana that broke down in 2002, four years of far-right President Alvaro Uribe pushing a strictly military solution to the way, and seven years of Plan Colombia, which ramped up counterinsurgency operations against the FARC with billions of dollars of U.S. military aid between 2000 and 2015.
Colombia's War and Peace Through the Eyes of a Dutch FARC Rebel
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Colombians suffered some of the most bloody years of the conflict as military offensives escalated and right-wing paramilitary violence ballooned. Human rights defenders have slammed Plan Colombia, launched in 2000 by Presidents Pastrana and Bill Clinton, as a disaster that spurred massacres, empowered death squads, and exacerbated and prolonged the war. Meanwhile, former president and current Senator Uribe, who has been accused of being tied to paramilitary groups, has become the most prominent opponent to peace with FARC, calling for a “No” vote in the plebiscite.
But while past FARC conferences focused on how to wage a war against the government, this one heralds the beginning of a new strategy without weapons — a new “war” of ideas in Colombia’s political arena as the soon-to-be demobilized army forms a political party. Delegates at the conference will also tackle plans of how to navigate this new route of the movement. FARC leaders have stressed that the guerrilla, founded in 1964, has always been a political movement at heart, though behind military fatigues.
Ahead of the conference, FARC leaders reiterated the rebel movement’s commitment to building stable and lasting peace that addresses the underlying problems of inequality and injustice and called on the government to do the same.
We hope the government will not only comply with the commitments made with the FARC,” FARC leader Jesus Santrich told Nueva Colombia. “But above all we also hope that the government will comply with the commitments it has with the Colombian people.”
The peace deal covers issues of land reform, transitional justice and victims’ rights, substitution for illicit crops, political participation and reintegration of FARC rebels, disarmament, and other end-of-conflict implementation measures. President Santos has heralded it as the most complete peace accord in the world.
As the longest-running war in the Americas, Colombia’s more than 50-year internal conflict has taken a harsh toll on society. The country is home to the second largest population of internally displaced people after Syria, with some 6.3 million people uprooted. The conflict has also killed over 220,000 people.