Let's talk Latin America

Are Colombia’s peace talks a real step towards a resolution?

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Bristolatino’s Political editor Kwame Lowe discusses the complex matter of Colombia’s low-intensity civil war between guerrilla group the FARC and the government, and analyses the true significance of the current peace talks.

On 6 November 2013, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reached a ‘fundamental agreement’ in their peace talks with the Colombian government, which began in October 2012. This ‘agreement’ refers in particular to FARC being given an opportunity to engage in politics, on the condition that they put an end to their brutal attacks. The Colombian armed conflict, which many consider to be a low-intensity civil war, began just under 50 years ago in 1964, and is estimated to have claimed the lives of 220,000 people, displacing hundreds of thousands more. It is a conflict that has shaped modern-day Colombia, and despite the Latin American country’s significant economic development in the last decade, the fighting continues to paralyse its population to a large extent.

While this breakthrough ‘agreement’ is potentially significant, it is not the first time the FARC would have engaged in formal politics, having done so before under the guise of the Patriotic Union party in the 1990s. This attempt at the integration of the guerrilla organisation into society was unsuccessful and resulted in the murder of 3,000 of its members. Furthermore, the FARC were granted a safe zone ‘the size of Switzerland’, which rather than bolster the peace process they used to train their troops, build on their capacity to transport drugs and set up prison camps to hold hostages.

History thus puts into question whether the armed group – who are classified as terrorists by Colombia, the United States, Canada, Chile, New Zealand and the European Union, but freedom fighters by others – can ever engage peacefully in the political process. After all, FARC has spent 49 fighting violently against it. Although some would argue that the situation in Colombia is reminiscent of that of the IRA in Ireland in the 1990s, it must be remembered that every case is specific, especially when such contrasting countries are concerned. It would be naive to think that the Good Friday Agreement could be used as a legitimate model for the solution of Colombia’s conflict, as the conflicts have taken place within very different contexts.

The National Front had been formed in 1958 when the creation of a third political party united the two main political parties, the Liberals and Conservatives against the military regime of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (1953-1957). The parties agreed to let the opposite party govern, intercalating for a period of four presidential terms. During this time, social, economic and political problems continued and new guerrilla movements surged due to general dissatisfaction and the adoption of new political ideas such as communism. As a result of these communist ideas, the FARC was born. The group was derived specifically from communist resistance to the forceful relocation of peasant farmers, enacted by the government to enable commercial-scale farming.

The FARC thus sees its main goal as establishing social justice (through Marxist-Leninist means), which involves ending US intervention in Colombia’s internal affairs, intervention which has often been in support of conservative interests. Such ambitions are adopted by many leftist parties across the continent, but not all pursuits of social justice have been of such a violent, divisive nature. Yet Colombia’s history of conflict, of repressive state control and its strategic location as the gateway to Central America means that some level of armed conflict was inevitable.

Due to the FARC being anti-government rebels, they have had to rely on illegal sources of revenue and recruits. They earn up to $100 million dollars per year through taxation on the illegal drug trade, and make a further $200 million dollars from bank robberies, ransom kidnappings and extortion. Moreover, 20-30% of the combatants used by the FARC are child soldiers (many of whom have been forced to join). Sexual violence against women -disproportionately women of African descent- is also a pressing issue that both sides must seek to redress. These are just the most notable among a host of crimes and human rights violations which all sides of the conflict have committed, not forgetting the paramilitary groups, who claim to be reacting to perceived threats by guerrilla movements.

The proposed creation of temporary special congressional districts (in the areas worst affected by the conflict) would be an immediate practical step towards accommodating the FARC within the context of the formal political process. However, after years of brutalisation, a recent poll found that 71% of respondents from across the country disapproved of the FARC. In the most affected areas (generally the countryside, being where the organisation holds its roots), it is expected that respondents would be more sympathetic to FARC’s cause, yet still 65% disapproved of it. These figures would rise if those in charge of atrocities were allowed to run for seats.

FARC’s history of brutality points to yet more violence, as peaceful means may not suit the rebels. In addition, any developments made on the subject are not guaranteed to be kept to or carried out, as Colombian politics are engulfed by corruption. Whether peace talks will go much further is uncertain, as there are presidential elections next May in which the main opposition candidate, former president Alvaro Uribe, is pledging to end to all negotiations, referring to FARC as terrorists who must be dealt with militarily. Regardless of whether the peace talks are ultimately successful or not, Colombia must make major changes to its political and social infrastructure and confront its violent past in order to deal with the frustrations which gave rise to the conflict in the first place. The issues FARC are concerned with, such as extreme economic disparity and agricultural policy, are still very much at the forefront of Colombian society.

Header photo:  FARC lead negotiator Ivan Marquez speaks to the media, credit Times Live.co.za