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Colombia: does peace have a chance?


Reflections on a Year in the Journey to Peace in Colombia*

On the eve of the tenth round of peace talks in Havana focussing on the second topic on the agenda – political participation –  La Semana wrote (8/06/2013): “More difficult than the agrarian question and more sensitive for public opinion, the theme of political participation will determine the negotiations.” This seemed counter-intuitive at the time. The agrarian question is at the heart of the structural problems that lie behind the armed conflict in Colombia. The 2004 Wrld Bank Report on Land Policy in Colombia put the Gini coefficient measuring inequality in land ownership in Colombia at 0.85%, an extraordinarily high concentration, given that a coefficient of 1 means that one person owns all the land and that of zero means everyone owns the same amount of land. Surely this was the most intractable of issues upon which the talks would fall or take off? 

FARC guerrillasYet, as the talks reach the end of the 16th round and enter their second year, there is one partial agreement on the agrarian issue, and none so far on political participation. President Santos’s poll ratings have slumped from some 48% six months ago to 29% today, which is a little better than the 21% low point at the time of various agrarian strikes in August, but hardly encouraging for his political gamble on a successful peace agreement by November of this year. That timetable, which aims to achieve an end to the armed conflict before electoral campaigning began (elections are due in May next year), has proved impossible. In the meantime, the elections are already overshadowing the talks, with former President Alvaro Uribe enjoying over 60% popular support (although he cannot personally stand) and campaigning actively against the peace talks. So, are the talks doomed? Not yet, I would say. However they are at an extremely vulnerable point, and we need to understand why.

Political participation

The theme of political participation has highlighted the key points of this fragility. If an agreement is reached, it will mean that the guerrilla movement has accepted that the moment has come when they can reasonably believe there is a safe political environment to struggle in non-violent ways for a different economic and political model for Colombia. Such a possibility was last glimpsed in the mid-1980s, and was cruelly and violently scuppered by the army and sectors of the Colombian elite. 

So today the extent to which such an agreement has been achieved is thus potentially a measure of how far Colombia has progressed democratically. When the FARC last dipped a toe into electoral politics in the 1980s (through the Union Patriótica, UP party), it polarized political opinion. The right wing in the country dismissed it as the dark side of a strategy of “combining all the forms of struggle”. How could the political movement, the UP, be trusted if behind it the FARC remained an armed movement? For the left (and at that time the FARC had the support of a much wider spectrum than today), the UP was a tentative experiment which if it had been allowed to flourish would indeed have led to the laying down of arms by the FARC. 

Reality lies somewhere between these views. The FARC had in 1982 at its Seventh Conference and Extended Plenum, analysed the situation as a “revolutionary” one and had upgraded its capacity from guerrilla force to an irregular revolutionary army. The tactics of kidnapping and extortion had expanded and it planned a doubling of its fronts. But the violence of the right had also intensified, despite the truce with the FARC negotiated in 1984. Death squads systematically eliminated social leaders, and targeted specifically the UP candidates in the second half of the 1980s, assassinating at least 3,000 of them.

New context

2013 is, however, a very different moment and context. The FARC have exhausted the political and moral capital they once had amongst intellectuals and progressives for being the voice of the dispossessed and impoverished campesinos.  While they still have such capital amongst their traditional rural areas of support, their deep unpopularity amongst the urban classes in particular, in this highly urbanised country, has a direct bearing on this second theme of the peace talks. Urban Colombia is very disturbed at the thought that the FARC will gain concessions in the realm of politics. It is very hard for some sectors of the left to accept that the FARC not only do not speak to urban Colombia, but that they are actively rejected if not despised in sectors way outside their traditional enemies amongst the elites.

However, urban Colombia needs to come to terms with the FARC as a political force, if ever Colombia is to move towards peace. Wealthy rural sectors are, of course, the most virulently opposed to the FARC, but it should not be impossible for urban Colombia to recognise that Colombia is worth a political deal with the FARC (just as Paris was worth a Mass, as Henri IV put it after the religious wars of late sixteenth century France). To continue military strategies which foster the reproduction of all forms of violence and to fail to construct the rule of law, is harmful to the entire society. 

We are at a moment when the possibility of negotiating an agreement looks more fragile than it has for a long time. The FARC have, of course, used their platform in Havana to put forward a radical political agenda. We don’t know how far their positions are a show to impress the country and/or their main constituency, rather than their ultimate bargaining positions. I think it is quite promising actually that the FARC are putting forward political positions at all. It wasn’t so long ago that they were dismissed as narco-terrorists. They have shown, I think, that there remains a strong political logic behind all they do. Perhaps not unfairly, Semana dubs what they are doing as ‘Chavista’. They suggest that the FARC have been speaking “as if they have been a party for 50 years not shooting bullets in the mountains”. But this is maybe an important shift: that they can actually talk as If they are a political party. 

De facto powers

Colombia has always been caught in the paradox of the “formal” and the “real”. It has many elements of democracy. There is no doubt that the country has moved on since the Frente Nacional carved up political power between the two main parties to the exclusion of subaltern voices from the late 1950s to the 1970s. The 1991 Constitution formally widened participation and recognised social rights, including those of its indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations. The growth of an urban middle class has transformed the country in many ways. However, many have died since 1991 in trying to turn that Constitution into a reality. De facto powers control territory. According to government figures, the Afro-Colombians and indigenous are disproportionately represented amongst Colombia’s four million or more displaced, and it is no coincidence that their lands have been appropriated for mining and agro-export purposes. Social activists and human rights defenders are still being killed. As I write, on 4 November 2013, César García, a peasant and community leader opposed to a gold mining project in Cajarmarca, was shot dead by an unknown gunman. 

The FARC point rightly to the ongoing challenges in Colombia’s real world of being opposed to the prevailing economic and social order, to the dispossession of thousands of peasant families from the land, to the push towards an extractive economy that will benefit the few. If one takes away (and, of course, one cannot really do that) all the terrible acts of violence committed by the FARC, and the fact that many would find a world governed by the FARC extremely unpalatable, there is nevertheless substance in their critique. And the FARC are not responsible for the majority of the human rights violations in the country, something which does not exonerate them from responsibility for the many they did commit, but which must be remembered when we are trying to think about peace and how to achieve it. The state army, paramilitary groups and sectors of the elite all also bear responsibility for the extreme violence of the last decades in Colombia. 

President Juan Carlos SantosHowever, while it may be the case that the FARC’s arguments deserve to be listened to, the FARC do not appear capable of communicating them, even to the democratically minded urban classes of Colombia. Indeed, they may be trying to emphasise that they have a political vision and platform, but there is no evidence that they know how to act politically. They have continued to go beyond the possibilities that could be offered by Santos. Their ten point programme of political participation, including an Asamblea Constituyente (Constituent Assembly), the funding of communications media for the FARC and direct elections for key state judicial positions, is simply not going to happen. At the start of the 16th round of talks, the FARC proposed 99 conditions for the talks to progress. Thus, their key message – that reform and change are needed in Colombia – is lost, as people see only a maximalist utopian vision which exaggerates the leverage of a weakened armed group and which fails to take account of the real power of the anti-peace-talks right.

Where now? 

Rather than seeing that Santos is in need of some real progress to demonstrate the legitimacy of a much-questioned process, the FARC seem to view Uribe’s intransigence as there to force them into concessions. The impending electoral contest has threatened the entire possibility of the peace talks, as Santos is forced to consider his declining electoral support and faces an increasingly strident right which gains traction the more the FARC appear to refuse to offer any significant concessions. The FARC seem not to realise that for the moment, the right needs them and they need Santos. In the meantime, Santos and his Minister of Defence, in particular, heighten their rhetoric and increase the military build-up against the FARC, as former President Uribe makes the most of any deterioration in the security situation in the country. 

The FARC needs to be persuaded that there are many progressively minded people in Colombia who support movements for social justice, but do not see the FARC as their voice. The FARC have to truly accept that a democratic Colombia has to be built, and they can contribute to it or watch a resurgent right use their ongoing armed struggle to take the country backwards. The rebuilding of a strong civil opposition movement in Colombia is vital for the future. Ongoing human rights violations by the state army and private criminal groups are going to be ever more costly in international reputation (if sadly, not in investment), to the globally oriented project of the Santos government. At the moment, such an opposition is vocal but fragmented. It lacks a coherent and consistent message for social justice and peace, and a robust strategy for building movements to turn such a message into reality, should the peace talks finally bear fruit. 

In the midst of this difficult situation, what do people who want to see the peace talks progress advocate? I would argue that there has to be a raising of the moral arguments for peace and a recognition that all Colombians will have to accept things they do not like for the talks to bear fruit. The protection of life and the means to life must be a foundation for lasting peace in the country, but that will have to be struggled for by civic and social movements capable of constructing a broad alliance amongst the regions, between urban and rural poor and their allies, and between Afro-Colombians, indigenous and other sectors of the Colombia population. Women have to play a pivotal role in exposing the violences to which they have been subjected by all armed actors and promoting ways of addressing the legacy of long term trauma and its potential impact on the inter-generational transmission of violence. These voices must be part of what will be a protracted process of transforming social relationships in Colombia, as well as political and economic ones. 

As the peace talks began, there were signs that a broad alliance for peace was possible, if fragile. A year later, there has been talk of a pause in the discussions, and various other scenarios which would be used by the right to cry “failure”. Santos has begun to reiterate his support for peace once again. However, those sectors of the elite who might most be expected to back his “modernizing” project, the entrepreneurs, have backtracked through their fears that they will have to pay the cost of any peace. A survey by Dinero in October 2013 found that 80% of the population did not believe that there would be a peace agreement before the elections, 75% thought that, if there was an agreement, the government would raise taxes to pay for it, and only 40% were prepared to pay such taxes. Yet, what could be called a ‘peace tax’ might be the way in which Colombia’s journey towards sustainable violence reduction could work. Central American peace processes have revealed how the failure of elites to finance the establishment of peace has generated enormously negative consequences in terms of the spread of social violence and exclusion. Ex-combatants must be given a sense of a future, a dignified future. Colombian elites have to recognise that they are not the only citizens in their country, and that real, meaningful and sustainable livelihoods matter for the future. 

The prospects for the peace talks remain extremely uncertain and difficult to predict. President Santos has shown leadership in moving the talks forward until now. He has to resist the strident opposition from the electorally still powerful right, and appeal to the country’s desire to end its many cycles of violence. The FARC have to also work towards a minimum utopia which resonates with society, enabling them to become one of many civil forces for social justice. The attractions of the illegal economy have to be reversed through a strengthening of an inclusionary legal economy, which does not allow rapacious capital to dispossess peasants and exploit labour. A moral constituency for peace and social justice and against violence must be nurtured, expanded and deepened throughout society and in a way which undermines the calls of the right to abandon this historic moment for the country.


On the day this blog was finished (6 November 2013), the peace negotiators in Havana announced a breakthrough on the thorny issue of political participation. The blog below describes the lead up and background to this moment before this announcement was made. As the blog suggests, the theme of political participation of the FARC has arguably been the most difficult of all the 6 topics for discussion (although the remaining four topics: disarmament, illicit drugs, rights of victims and peace deal implementation are not exactly easy either!). As the blog explains, the right of the FARC to move from armed struggle to participation in party politics is highly contentious amongst many sectors of the population and one of the issues which the right wing opponents of the peace talks most challenge. The question of which FARC leaders might be allowed to stand for legislative seats for instance, given accusations of gross human rights violations against them, will be highly sensitive. The possibility that a new FARC party might be guaranteed pots in the national legislature in exchange for disarming, will also be widely questioned, and it is not yet clear whether this is part of the deal. However, it is unlikely that FARC leaders will agree a peace deal without some guarantees of their future safety and freedom. Details of the agreement are not clear, but there will be ‘rights and guarantees’ for the ‘new movements that emerge from the signing of a final accord’, it was announced. The background in the blog explains the significance of this agreement in breathing new life into the Havana talks, which had reached their most fragile point over this particular topic. It is a last minute rescue package for peace, which will outmanoevre the right wing critics around former President Uribe, potentially boost President Santos whose willingness to stand for re-election in May 2014 will be announced in the next couple of weeks. This agreement is likely to enhance the possibility that he will stand and that he can yet regain popularity on the basis of a renewed hope for peace. The process remains, however, highly unpredictable, although this agreement was an essential step to keep the process going and avoid a damaging suspension of talks, which President Santos himself had begun discussing as they appeared to reach an impasse over this topic.

*Jenny Pearce is Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University

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