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Colombia: an ending and a beginning


From the Llanos del Yarí — a special series for LAB  from the FARC’s Tenth Conference. Read Parts One and Two here and here. Against the backdrop of a dramatic iron grey sky, with occasional flashes of lightning and rolls of thunder, FARC’s chief negotiator Iván Márquez read out the Political Declaration of the 10th National Guerrilla Conference, the concluding statement after seven days of debates, marking the decision of the FARC to transition into politics. “War is over!” he began. “We will all build peace!” colombia_farcconf_platform_700 Márquez explained that the Conference had decided to approve unanimously the final agreement reached on 24 August between the FARC and the government, and therefore instruct all their Blocs, Fronts and Militia to comply with their commitments. He said that they were sure that the Final Agreement was a tool which would permit the beginning of a political transition that would transform Colombian society, and made a call for the campesinos, the working classes, the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities and young people, all to own and defend the agreements, and to call for their full implementation.

The new political party

In terms of the FARC’s own transition, Márquez announced that this would begin by holding a Congress in order to found their new political party, at the latest in May 2017, so long as the agreements were implemented properly. By that date, FARC will be coming to the end of the six-month demobilisation period which is shortly to begin, in which all the guerrilla units will concentrate in 27 camps across the country with a tripartite Monitoring and Verification mechanism (government, FARC and United Nations) and deposit their weapons in containers supervised by the UN. This Congress will be organised by the Estado Mayor (Council of Commanders), but the purpose of the assembly will be to elect a wider and more plural leadership, to found the party, give it a name, and draw up its aims and statutes. colombia_farcconf_crowd_700 This political party, said Márquez, will form part of a wide National Convergence, in which different parties and social movements can join together to work for the real political, social, economic and cultural democratisation of Colombia. This Convergence, he said, should be a collective effort, which permits the building of power from below, but also aims to win institutional spaces by election. He ended by saying that the best way of implementing the agreements and working towards this democratic opening in Colombia would be a National Constitutional Assembly. The FARC have called for this since they began the peace negotiations, but they accepted instead the mechanism of the plebiscite as a means of securing short-term approval of the agreements by Colombian society, while making clear they still want to press for a Constitutional Assembly in the medium-term.

Undefeated but unable to defeat

After Márquez, top commander Timochenko gave a speech, in which he reiterated something I’d heard many of the guerrilleros say over the week: we were not defeated, but we also could not defeat our adversary. In that condition, we negotiated a peace deal – and peace is what we have always wanted for Colombia, so it is not the victory we initially had aimed for, but it is a victory for us nonetheless. He emphasised that the transition from a politico-military organisation to a political party was at once a “historic rupture” and “a line of continuity” with their founding objectives and struggles. He said that the best redress for victims of the conflict was its full termination, and he put his trust fully in the Final Agreement and his conviction that it was the best path to follow to democratise Colombian society. He reiterated the importance of the National Convergence of political parties and social movements, adding that non-organised sectors of civil society would also need to join in, because the implementation of the agreements was the responsibility of the whole of Colombia. He finished by citing Simón Bolívar: “United we will be strong and we will deserve respect. Divided and isolated, we will perish”. colombia_farcconf_hombres_700 This is a poignant message for the left in Colombia, which, as in many parts of the world, often finds it difficult to converge agendas and personalities and present a united front to win political power. The transformation of the FARC into a new political party will create a new panorama, and there will be many challenges. These will be both internal, in the transition from a hierarchical, military structure to a civilian, congressional one, in which new leaderships will have to emerge and old ones be disputed, and different tendencies will have to compete in the foundation of a clear political line – one source close to the guerrilla told me that there was a more hard-line, Stalinist school within the FARC, which tended towards absolutism and confrontation, and a second school which was more Marxist-Leninist, more flexible, and perhaps more modern and pragmatic. These divisions are likely to become more visible as the FARC move into the public eye, and leaders are elected to take up the 10 guaranteed seats in Congress over eight years which are part of the Final Agreement. And it remains to be seen how many of the guerrilleros who are demobilising actually end up wanting to work in the party – in the Conference, all those I spoke to were keen to do so, but things may change once they transition into civilian life and spread out  across the country.

In search of allies

The other set of challenges will be external – how will FARC work together with the existing complex panorama of the left in Colombia, in their ‘National Convergence’? Which national figures from politics and from social movements will they ally with? Will the new political party to be born from the FARC create an opportunity for different sectors of civil society to work together, as when the FARC created the Patriotic Union party in 1985 which was joined by many non-guerrilleros because they saw it as a real alternative to the armed conflict? Or will the same parties continue to exist separately alongside FARC’s new one, but working together in a platform? colombia_farcconf_crowd2_700 Much of this will start to work itself out when the FARC hold their first political Congress in 2017, and will depend on whether they hold this as a closed event only for FARC members, or whether they open it up to broader sectors. Whatever happens, this is a significant moment for the global left. It is the ending of the oldest communist guerrilla force in Latin America, and the last, apart from the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación-ELN), a much smaller guerrilla which continues to operate in Colombia despite frustrated efforts in recent times to negotiate a parallel peace deal. Guardian Colombia correspondent Sybilla Brodzinsky has called this the “closing” of the “Che Guevara era”. The transition to a political party which will fight for changes from within the democratic, neoliberal system will be interesting to follow, and the Final Agreement creates the guarantees for FARC’s new party to participate in the political system for at least eight years, after which, they will have to stand on their own feet and win support electorally like all the other parties. colombia_farcconf_banner_700 I thought of the branding which had been done for the Conference: a blue logo of three of FARC’s most prominent, fallen leaders – Manuel Marulanda, Alfonso Cano and Jacobo Arenas. Promotional kits had been given out to all the visitors, to the press, to the campesinos who had come to sell their goods and seek out news of their loved ones, as well as the guerrillerada themselves, including bags, T-Shirts, postcards, ponchos and even CDs of recordings by FARC’s own band, Rebels of the South. The same logo was stamped on the backdrop to all the press conferences, accompanied by a slogan both in Spanish and English, which could well serve as the political slogan for the new party: National Reconciliation, Peace with Social Justice, and Advanced Democracy. I said to the media team as I collected my T-shirt, “I’m not sure where I’ll feel safe wearing it outside of the Conference!” and they laughed. Technically, FARC are still listed as a terrorist group by the CIA. In theory, they will be taken off the list once the new Amnesty law is passed, as part of point 5 on the rights of victims and the transitional justice mechanism agreed in the Havana accords. This is a strategic move by the FARC to de-mystify and normalise themselves, by handing out products which may be worn or used or shared across Colombia; and it is also a first step towards the change of image they need to achieve in order to win political support. I imagined the Yarí campesinos going to milk their cows in the morning wearing the Conference-brand poncho over their shoulders. There was definitely something surreal and marquezian about it all. As Timochenko finished his speech, there was resounding applause from the thousands of guerrilleros congregated before the huge concert stage. A clap of thunder echoed, and drops of rain started falling, threatening us with a downpour: an appropriately sombre accompaniment to the occasion, perhaps. Thousands of men and women around me were gazing earnestly towards their leaders. Their lives and futures will depend on the next steps, and the new architecture of the left in Colombia.
Gwen Burnyeat is a Wolfson scholar reading for a PhD in Anthropology at UCL researching the Colombian peace process. She was previously lecturer in Political Anthropology in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, where she also did a Masters in Anthropology as a Leverhulme Trust Study-Abroad Scholar. This was the basis for her forthcoming book ‘Chocolate, Politics and Peace-building: an Ethnography of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia’ (Palgrave Macmillan 2017) and the documentary ‘Chocolate of Peace‘. Before that she studied Literature at the Universities of Leeds and Cambridge. She has worked in Colombia for over six years, including with the International Centre for Transitional Justice and with Peace Brigades International. 

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