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Colombia: Will Negotiations Work This Time?

Pres. Juan Manuel Santos Calderón of Colombia is working toward the start of negotiations to end the protracted civil war with FARC and to essentially end FARC’s significant position in narco-trafficking. Pres. Santos has embarked carefully on an historically-defining process, but it is not without political risk.

Colombia has a long history of negotiating with various domestic armed groups, including several insurgencies, organized criminal groups, even individuals, often with successful outcomes. The latest effort began on February 23, 2012, and was made public in late August 2012, with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejercito Popular (FARC-EP), and will take place in Olso and Havana. Norway and Cuba are the guarantors, with Venezuela and Chile acting in support.

Although the guerillas have asked for a bilateral ceasefire, they seem unwilling to enter a ceasefire unilaterally unless the Colombian military agreed in advance to one, something Pres. Juan Manuel Santos Calderón has thus far refused to do.

History of Negotiations. The Colombian Government has negotiated over the past few decades with many insurgent and criminal groups, often with partial or total success. Armed groups have given up arms and re-integrated into the political life, including the “Liberal bandits” of the early 1960s.

During the 1980s, Pres. Virgilio Barco negotiated with the FARC, Ejercito Popular de Liberación (EPL, a Maoist group), Movimiento Guerrillero 19 de Abril (M-19), Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores (PRT), Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (ELN), and smaller groups such as Comando Ricardo Franco, Movimiento Armado Quintín Lamé, Corriente de Renovación Socialista, Frente Francisco Garnica, Milicias de Medellín, Grupos de la Costa, most of which joined into the Coordinadora Revolucionaria de la Nación. The reintegrated guerillas formed a new political party, the Unión Patriótica (UP), which, despite an inordinate presence in the Constitutional Assembly which produced a new Constitution in 1991, failed to garner much public support. Negotiations were held with specific individuals in the various drug cartels of the 1990s during the César Gaviria presidency, ensuring their (somewhat) peaceful surrender and incarceration, if not their actual departure from the illicit business. Significantly, the common thread of these settlements was an emphasis on the re-integration of the individuals into society, rather than on a political resolution of differences.

One failed effort took place during the presidency of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002), during which a large portion of the country was de-militarized as a pre-condition for negotiations. This episode left a bad feeling among the populace, as the Government’s effort to remove all obstacles to a settlement was subverted by the FARC’s leadership, who used the time to re-organize, re-arm (assisted by corrupt government officials in Venezuela and Peru), and consolidate their power through massive investment in the cocaine business.

The Current Effort. According to press releases, the current talks seek to negotiate a six-point agenda. No timetable was imposed, and periodic evaluations would be made on their effectiveness, should it become necessary. Appeals have been made to Colombia’s society to participate and support the agenda, if only because their Government is paying for the whole thing.

Agenda points reportedly set out in advance of the negotiations included:

•    Politics of Integral Agrarian Reform. Integral agrarian development was put forward as a determinant to advance the integration of the national regions, along with social and economic development of the nation based on equality. Subset items include access and use of land (non-productive lands, formalization of property titles, frontier agriculture, protection of national reservations and parks); territorial development programs (infrastructure and development); Social development (health, education, housing, poverty eradication); stimulus to agricultural production and cooperative/solidarity economy (technical assistance, subsidies, credit, income generation, marketing, labor formalization); alimentary security systems.
•    Political Participation. Rights and guarantees for the exercise of opposition political actors (both in general and for new organizations emerging from the negotiations; access to public media); mechanisms for democratic participation (direct citizen participation at various levels and diverse themes); effective measures to promote increased political participation (national, regional, local sectors, emphasizing the most vulnerable populace, equality, and guarantees of security).
•    End of the Conflict. Bilateral and definitive ceasefire; disarmament (reincorporation of the FARC-EP into civilian economic, social or political life); national review of all cases against all citizens accused or condemned for belonging to or supporting the FARC-EP; intensified efforts against criminal organizations and their support networks (anti-corruption and impunity, specifying those responsible for attacks on human rights defenders, social movements, or political movements); reforms or adjustments necessary to foster peace; security guarantees; government anti-paramilitary efforts (in relation to victims).
•    Solution to the Conflict of Illicit Drugs. Drug cultivation substitution programs (community participation, recovery of environmental damage in areas affected); public health and anti-consumption programs; solutions to the phenomenon of drug consumption and public health.
•    Victims and Reparations. Central to this accord would be compensation to victims (human rights, truth).
•    Implementation, Verification, Ratification. The signing of the final accord would begin the implementation of all points adopted, including mechanisms for implementation and verification (commissions to monitor compliance, mechanisms for resolution of differences); international monitoring; timetable; budget; means of diffusion and communication; mechanism for ratification.

What Is New? The old guard of the FARC-EP is gone; dead of old age or the intensified combat tempo of the reformed and effectively-led Colombian Armed Forces. Although some of the tired, marxist-inspired themes were still present (agrarian reform, socialist equality, etc.), a major emphasis has been placed on the integration of the disarmed combatants into society. Previous efforts at guaranteeing a political life after the war were no longer apparent, possibly a FARC recognition that this was never possible. Very little of the marxist agenda had popular support in Colombia, except among specific sectors of academia and student movements, and the demise of the Communist International had imposed a certain measure of reality.

Many commentators have written that Pres. Santos’ efforts to distance himself from his immediate predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, under whom he served as Minister of Defense, have played a large part in the Government’s effort. Uribe’s continued popularity (and presence) has irked Santos to the point where he appears almost desperate to seek to establish a legacy of his own, although such peace talks could be a risky way to do so. Should these talks fail, his legacy would be set regardless, but it would be similar to that of Pastrana: not a positive one.

One critical element to solving Colombia’s crisis would be what to do about the FARC’s involvement in the illegal drug business. The guerillas’ investment has been massive, with estimates up to 80 percent of the group’s income being derived from the cultivation, production, and trafficking of cocaine. FARC representatives have been reported present in Bolivia, selling drugs to traffickers linked to Evo Morales’ Government. Would the FARC willingly give up its role in this business? Would it submit to prison terms as did the Cali and Medellín cartel leaders of the 1990s?


Issues to Consider

•    A political solution to the 58-year-old conflict seems possible, following the military weakening of the FARC by a determined national military and political campaign. It would seem to be in the guerillas’ interest to negotiate, before further campaigns reduce their area of operations.
•    Integration of the FARC soldiers into society would be feasible, although difficult. Colombian society has a nefarious history of personal and family vendettas: most of the re-incorporated insurgents of the 1980s who joined the UP died violently, attacked from all sides and for multiple reasons. Many others joined paramilitary groups and died in combat against the FARC, ELN, national armed forces, or rival drug-funded private armies. Even if all the FARC guerillas surrendered their arms, there would be no guarantee that revenge killings would not decimate their numbers.
•    Peace would improve security for Colombians, as well as enhance their prosperity, although stability might not return in the short-term. Much would depend on the political solutions adopted, specifically those related to agrarian reform and property reparations. Colombian jurisprudence is based on positive law, where the Government guarantees all rights, including property protection. If re-partitioning or re-titling of lands lost during the conflict was imposed, massive resettlement would be possible for years to come. Given that the FARC caused much of the displacement to begin with, it would be interesting to see how the Government accepted, or could even carry out, accurate restitution to the original victims, let alone a socialist-inspired program of agrarian reform.
•    Negotiations to determine what was criminal activity or political activity by FARC members could be a sticking point. For years the Government attempted to deal with the insurgents as criminal elements, and thus many of them have criminal cases pending against them for murder, kidnapping, extortion, robbery, illicit enrichment through the drug business, etc. Could society accept the forgiveness of these offenses lightly, in exchange for an end to the armed conflict?
•    The regional impact would be significant should the guerillas disarm, mostly through a reduction in the instability and violence of the drug business. FARC drug traffickers have been entrenched in Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador along the Colombian borders for decades. Should they suddenly evacuate, a power vacuum would ensue; who fills the void would determine the impact for future decades. Possibly the most significant of this would be the FARC’s integration into the drug trafficking elements in Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela and Evo Morales’ Bolivia. If these links remained, the seeds of future conflict would also remain, if only between legitimate democracies and drug-supported authoritarian administrations.

By. Defense & Foreign Affairs Analysts

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Leave a comment
  • Hans Nieder on October 04 2012 said:
    FARC is has no bark...It is a spent force..

    Look for a, Daniel Ortega, like moment...

    BTW, nicely written piece, indeed...

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