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Colombia: Can peace negotiators address root causes?

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Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos with military, including an unidentified British military adviser with black beret (Photo: Justice for Colombia).The forthcoming peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas have awakened some cautious hope of a settlement of the country’s decades-long conflicts. But it is crucial to know who is on the negotiating teams, the interests they represent and the extent of their ability and will to address root causes.

By Garry Leech – September 27, 2012

In October, representatives of the Colombian government will sit down with members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in an effort to end half a century of war. The peace talks will begin in Oslo, Norway and then shift to Havana, Cuba. While there are some reasons for optimism, there is also a real possibility that if a peace agreement is reached it will not end the violence. If the government’s objective is to simply negotiate the logistics related to the demobilization of the guerrillas then Colombia will fail to achieve peace with social justice. In fact, the violence will likely continue, albeit in a different form, as has occurred following recent peace accords implemented in other Latin American countries that also failed to achieve significant structural reforms to the neoliberal, or so-called free trade, model.

In order to facilitate the upcoming talks, the FARC dropped its longstanding demand that negotiations be held in a safe haven in Colombia free of government troops. The rebel group also renounced its practice of kidnapping for ransom earlier this year. Following the announcement of the talks, the FARC issued a call for a bi-lateral ceasefire to be implemented for the duration of the peace process. Many analysts have viewed these concessions by the guerrillas as signs of weakness resulting from setbacks suffered on the battlefield at the hands of the U.S.-backed Colombian military over the past decade-despite an upsurge in small-scale rebel attacks in recent years.

For its part, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos immediately rejected the FARC’s call for a ceasefire, declaring that the military will continue its operations throughout the duration of the negotiations. Ironically, it was the government that was demanding a bi-lateral ceasefire during the last peace process ten years ago. In fact, President Andres Pastrana terminated the peace process because the FARC refused to agree to a ceasefire and the guerrillas continued military operations outside the safe haven where talks were being held. And while the government also criticized the FARC’s use of its safe haven to increase its military strength during the peace process, few analysts or media outlets noted that the Colombian military was doing exactly the same thing under the multi-billion dollar U.S. aid package known as Plan Colombia.

Ultimately, the last peace process failed because the two sides were deadlocked on the first of the twelve points that constituted the negotiating agenda. The FARC wanted a re-evaluation of the neoliberal economic model that was being implemented in Colombia. The government, however, considered the neoliberal model to be non-negotiable. The same impasse had killed exploratory talks held by the FARC and the Colombian government in the early 1990s.

The negotiating agenda for the upcoming talks consists of:

1) rural development policy (including agrarian reform)

2) political participation (for both the FARC and Colombians in general)

3) ending the conflict

4) solving the illicit drug problem (and implementing alternative development)

5) the rights of victims of the violence

6) implementation and verification of a peace agreement.

It remains to be seen whether the FARC’s negotiators will again demand a broad re-evaluation of the neoliberal economic model when they address the agenda’s first point. If they do, then in all likelihood the talks will be dead on arrival because the representatives put forth by the government suggests that neoliberalism will continue to be a non-negotiable issue. Given that the government’s negotiating team includes Luis Carlos Villegas, president of Colombia’s largest business association, there is little likelihood of it agreeing to any accord that poses a significant threat to the political, social and economic status quo.

The fact that Colombia’s business community is the only civil society sector represented in the government’s negotiating team makes evident that it is the interests of the country’s elites that will dominate the government’s negotiating position. After all, the glaring absence of members of indigenous, environmental, development, women’s, Afro-Colombian and peasant organizations, many of which are also critical of the neoliberal model, raises serious questions about the government’s commitment to effectively addressing issues related to social and economic justice. The government’s neglect of these sectors of civil society is particularly disturbing given the fact that Colombia’s neoliberal policies, despite achieving impressive economic growth, have resulted in the country being one of the few Latin American nations to experience an increase in inequality over the past decade.

Additionally, the presence of former National Police director Oscar Naranjo and former Armed Forces chief Jorge Enrique Mora on the government’s negotiating team will likely further hinder any possibility of seriously addressing the neoliberal model and social justice issues. After all, peace will likely sever the flow of military aid from the United States, much to the chagrin of Colombia’s armed forces. This U.S. aid has allowed the Colombian military to secure resource-rich regions for foreign investors-a process that has forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of peasants. This rural “cleansing” along with neoliberal reforms has created favourable conditions for foreign investors with more than 80 percent of foreign investment in Colombia over the past decade occurring in the oil and mining sectors.

The fact that resource extraction by multinational corporations operating in Colombia’s rural regions constitutes the engine that is driving the neoliberal economy may lead the FARC to once again insist that addressing neoliberalism must be at the core of any rural development policy and agrarian reform. But if the FARC is indeed negotiating from a position of weakness and seeking a way out of the conflict then the guerrillas might take a more pragmatic approach to rural development and the economy in general than it did in previous peace processes.

During the past eighteen months the government has implemented some moderate reforms including the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which seeks to distribute land to peasants forcibly displaced by violence, and the Legal Framework for Peace Law, which allows for the possibility of amnesties or virtual amnesties to FARC leaders not guilty of crimes against humanity. But more than a year after the Restitution Law’s passage, there has been virtually no land turned over to displaced Colombians and human rights groups have been critical of potential amnesties for guerrillas responsible for human rights violations. Nevertheless, the Santos government may enter the talks believing that these reforms sufficiently address most of the points on the agenda and simply seek to negotiate the logistics related to the demobilization of the guerrillas—as the government has done in previous peace processes. The FARC’s response to any such approach by the government will speak volumes about the current strength—or weakness—of the guerrilla group.

Ultimately, if a peace agreement fails to effectively address the root causes of Colombia’s conflict-poverty and gross inequality-then the country will likely experience a continuation of violence even if the FARC demobilizes. After all, peace accords in the 1990s that led to the demobilization of guerrilla groups in Central America-and also the M-19 in Colombia-failed to address the social inequalities and injustices that lay at the root of those conflicts. As a result, the legacy of the Central American peace accords consists of poverty, inequality and rampant gang and criminal violence. In essence, politically-motivated violence has been replaced by criminal violence marked by anarchic tendencies that is perpetrated by individuals and gangs, many of which are involved in drug trafficking.

A Colombian woman feeds her son in a makeshift camp in a Bogotá park made by people displaced from their homes. Colombia is the country with the greatest number of displaced people in the world. (Photo/ InfoSur)Currently in Colombia, demobilized paramilitaries and guerrillas lose their government benefits three years after laying down their weapons. But many of them, despite Colombia’s economic growth under neoliberalism, are unable to find jobs. According to Luis Fernando Martinez, who works with the demobilization program, “Because they cannot find work and have difficulty adapting to urban life, many of the demobilized are turning to crime or joining emergent criminal gangs.” The increases in violent crime in Colombia’s cities in recent years suggest that the shifting nature of violence evident in Central America following those peace accords might well already be occurring in Colombia.

 So while there are reasons to be optimistic that the upcoming talks might result in a peace agreement and the demobilization of the FARC, there is a real possibility that the end of the armed conflict will not mean an end to violence. Sadly, unless a peace agreement results in far-reaching structural changes that address Colombia’s gross social and economic inequalities, the violence in one form or another will likely continue deep into the 21st century.