19 November 2014 - 11:25 PM
Can Colombia's Stalled Peace Talks Overcome Historic Hurdles?
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On August 17, 2012, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that his government would begin formal peace negotiations with the country’s largest guerrilla force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

President Juan Manuel Santos announced the suspension of the peace talks on Monday (Photo: EFE)

When the actual talks began three months later on November 19, the left-wing insurgents announced a two-month, unilateral cease-fire in the hopes of persuading the Colombian government to agree to a bilateral cease-fire while talks were taking place. However, Santos did not budge from his original position that no cease-fire would be agreed to until a final agreement was signed. 

READ MORE: The Colombian Peace Process Explained

Since then, and even as three of the five points on the negotiation agenda have been partially agreed upon by the parties, armed confrontation between the two sides has continued.

In just one of many of the reminders that a war persists in the country, the FARC detained General Ruben Dario Alzate, along with two civilians and another member of the military, in the western coastal department of Choco, one of the most conflict-ridden areas in Colombia. Santos responded by abruptly suspending the latest round of peace talks hours before they were to begin.

The situation has highlighted, as Senator Ivan Cepeda with Colombia’s Democratic Pole party said, the inconsistencies between the Colombian government’s rhetoric at the negotiating table and the policies they pursue.

But it is also indicative of the actions of the Colombian state throughout the half-century-old conflict that claimed 220,000 lives and forced some 2 million people from their homes.

Background to a conflict

While the origins of Colombia’s civil war are often traced to the beginnings of the FARC in the 1950s and 1960s, when small farmers from Marquetalia took up arms against the landlords and the government supporting them, the roots of the violence in Colombia begin at least 10 years before. 

As elections loomed in 1948, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was poised to become Colombia’s next president. The Liberal party politician, who had significant support from the country’s working class and progressive sectors, was cause for concern for right-wingers within his own party, as well as opponents from the other major political party, the Conservatives. Needless to say, Gaitan was not the preferred candidate of Colombia’s powerful land-owning class.  

On April 9, 1948, as he walked with a group of supporters, Gaitan was shot dead on the streets of Bogota. The crowd responded by beating the assailant to death, but things did not end there. 

As a 21-year-old Cuban by the name of Fidel Castro recalled, “Within minutes (of Gaitan’s killing) an extraordinary agitation began to occur spontaneously, because no one could set that in motion or organize it. It was a state of indescribable anger." The future Cuban leader was in Bogota at the time attending a student conference.

Gaitan’s murder and speculation around it ignited country-wide violence between liberals and conservatives, killing an estimated 100,000 people in the ensuing decade known as La Violencia. An agreement between the Liberal Party and Conservative Party put an end to the violent conflict, but did nothing to resolve the social grievances that propelled Gaitan to popularity. 

After a bloody decade of fighting, many of the country’s rural workers, still suffering under the poverty and brutality imposed by landowners, began an armed struggle that continues to this day.

Civil War and Attempts at ‘Peace’

The latest attempt to negotiate an end to the conflict have been significantly more successful than previous efforts, Senator Cepeda told teleSUR. “It’s a peace process which has, for the first time, established an agenda with specific points, with clearly established methods and procedures,” said Cepeda.

These talks have gone far beyond what has been accomplished under previous efforts.

Conservative President Belisario Betancur (1982-1985) broke with three decades of an exclusively military approach to the guerrilla groups, an approach strongly influenced by U.S. anti-communist policy in the hemisphere. Despite the absence of political and military support for the peace process, the negotiations rapidly led to a cease-fire shared both by the government and the guerrilla groups, including the FARC, the M-19s and the People’s Liberation Army (EPL). One year later, the guerrilla members founded the Patriotic Union (UP) political party, paving the way to their integration into legal politics.

However, violence from far-right paramilitary groups allied with the military put a violent end to this experiment. Between 1985 and 1991, at least 550 UP political leaders were assassinated, including two presidential candidates, four parliamentarians, and about 50 municipal councillors. The violence was also directed against union leaders or any kind of activist suspected of links or sympathies with the guerrillas.

After the assassination of an EPL leader, the seizure of the Justice Palace in 1985 by M-19 guerrilla fighters formally terminated the cease-fire, and thereby the peace talks. Moreover, Betancur became completely isolated, facing the opposition within his Liberal Party, the military, and a significant part of the public.

A second peace process, initiated in 1989 by President Virgilio Barco (1986-1990), proved partially successful, although it did not include the FARC. The talks ended not only with the demilitarization of the M-19, then politically and militarily weakened, but also with their political integration. Once again, however, paramilitary violence led to the assassination of EPL leader Carlos Pizarro Leongomez, then a presidential candidate.

Nevertheless, the M-19 persisted with the peace talks and were subsequently granted amnesty. Their members were then elected in the Constituent Assembly, responsible for the current constitution ratified in 1991, while some of them still hold important positions, including the current mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro.

During the 1999-2002 peace process, the government of Andres Pastrana agreed to demilitarize the southern region of Caguan as a preliminary condition for the peace talks by the FARC. However, fighting continued in the rest of the country, and the country became steeped in violence between the guerrillas and the military alongside the growing number of paramilitaries. With the end of this peace process, “Plan Colombia” was signed in 2002, pumping billions of dollars from the United States into the Colombian military. The plan was touted as military cooperation in order to fight drug-trafficking – but in reality, the military continued to directs its efforts against the FARC.

The end of the ´Caguan´experiment also led to the election of Alvaro Uribe as president. Uribe, whose cattle rancher father was killed by the FARC, not only represented the frustration of those who watched another failed peace process, but also the interests of the rural elite and those who Cepeda says are intent to have the conflict continue.

“In Colombia we have a section of the governing class, which made the war its modus vivendi, a class that has owes its benefits, its income, its political and economic power to violence and that sector is set on having the conflict continue,” said Senator Cepeda, who has been waging a fierce campaign within Colombia’s congress to reveal the links between Uribe and the country’s brutal paramilitaries and cartels.

Nevertheless, the failures of the Caguan process, where the FARC was subsequently accused by Uribe and other conservatives of taking advantage of the demilitarized zone to grow stronger militarily, have been continually exploited by the far-right. Uribe was able to launch his “democratic security” policy with popular support, until it was stopped by revelations of gross abuses, including surveillance of politicians, as well as the morbid “false positives” scandal, where military officials killed thousands of poor people and passed them off as guerrillas in order to gain bonuses and promotions.

Despite the atrocities committed by Uribe, the conserative inertia was enough to fuel Santos – who was Minister of Defense under Uribe before their falling out – to take a “tough stance” within the negotiations, in particular, the refusal of a bilateral cease-fire during the negotiations, as put forward by the FARC. Santos insisted he would “negotiate just as if [they were] in peace,” and “will carry out operations as if [they were] at war.”

Only three weeks after the beginning of the peace talks in Havana, Santos ordered the bombing of a FARC camp in the south of the country, killing 20 guerrillas. On January 20, 2014, 14 guerrilla men were killed during the bombing of a camp, in the department of Arauca, close to the Venezuelan border. Hundreds of events like these have occured, with casualties suffered on both sides.

Cepeda says that the absence of a cease-fire has meant that many Colombians still see the war outside of their homes, in spite of what hear about the negotiating table. “There is a immense skepticism that this time it will finally happen part because the two sides have agreed that dialogue is possible between the middle of the conflict.”

Despite the apprehension that many have about the prospects for peace, Colombians have shown on the streets and at the polls that they aspire for peace and a definitive end to the violence that has marred their country for six decades.

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