In 1999, Colombians witnessed, disillusioned, as the founder and ideological leader of the FARC, Manuel Marulanda ‘Tirofijo’, missed the opening ceremony to the peace talks with Andres Pastrana’s government. His empty seat eventually became a symbol of the failed negotiations and an extension of the civil war. 14 years later, a new round of negotiations with Juan Manuel Santos’ government has once again reignited hope in Colombia.
Background : from Caguan to now
Since the mid 19th century, Colombia has experienced constant political violence. Peasants joined the reformist liberals in their struggle against an elitist conservative party. Gaitan, a liberal leader, was assassinated and a period known as “La violencia” (1948-1958) ensued. After more than 200,000 deaths, a political coalition called Frente Nacional was formed. However, it ignored the peasant’s plight.
The continued social, political and economic problems gave rise to the FARC, which was founded under Marxist principles. The FARC – Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – gained solid support among the peasants and a strong ideology, but its funding came from illegal drug-dealing (marijuana and then cocaine) and kidnappings. This process eventually perverted their leftist ideology, and spurned the denigration of the group into a money-making machine.
Since the government was unable to defeat the FARC by armed means, it resorted to diplomacy and organized talks held in Caguan (1999-2002). The parity of armed forces allowed the FARC to make demands: a ceasefire and a demilitarized zone of around 42,000 km2 in the southern portion of the country. They occupied this zone for more than 2 years to arm themselves, strengthen their drug dealing networks, and recruit kids, while continuing killings and kidnappings. Negotiations came to an end when the rebel group kidnapped a politician, and the country realized that it had been played for a fool.
Though the FARC are now still the biggest guerilla group in the country, their numbers have halved in the last 10 years, with current estimates at 8,000 fighting men. This is in part due to a U.S.-aided militarization of the Colombian state. With state of the art technology various FARC leaders have been tracked and killed along with many FARC members. The government, empowered by strengthened political institutions and promising fiscal horizons, has also managed to delegitimize the isolated and outdated Marxist group. Civil society has done its part to repudiate the group and their methodology by way of massive demonstrations.
The FARC as it stands has lost all of its ideological relevance, and is disconnected from the people. Communism has fallen out of favour, and is now seen as an unsustainable alternative. Guerilla warfare as a means to gain power seems anachronistic in 21st century Latin America where leftist governments can just as well gain power through democratic elections: Correa in Ecuador, Chavez in Venezuela, Ortega in Nicaragua… Other more or less successful negotiations, such as the peace with the M-19 (another guerilla) in 1990, spread optimism across the country.
Peace with the FARC?
In today’s new round of negotiations with the FARC, the government has the upper hand, and defines the conditions for negotiation. Using military pressure, in addition to the talks, the government sends a firm message of confidence, and the balance of power now inclines in its favor.
In order to prevent the process from transforming itself into a mass media event, filled with inflammatory speeches, the negotiations are being held in secrecy and abroad. The government has set time markers to assess the development of the talks, and will stop if they find the progress unsatisfactory.
Topics on the agenda during negotiation include, in broad terms, agrarian reform, prospective political participation of current guerilla members, the end of the armed conflict, illegal drug trade and reparations for the victims of the conflict. The realism and viability of this agenda gives the process a greater probability of success. It acknowledges real social, economic and political issues in a country which, despite its recent economic growth, is crippled with inequality – both a cause and a consequence of decades of conflict.
Around 77% of Colombians supported the dialogues at their onset, though many are unwilling to cede to FARC pressures. Yet, Colombians must acknowledge that the FARC are still far from being defeated, and that even if their numbers have decreased. war continues in the inhospitable mountains and forests the rebel groups know so well. In other words, Colombians must make concessions in order to obtain a permanent peace; to prevent further deaths, allow the kidnapped to return home, and give the children along rebel lines a future framed by something else than bellicose nurturing.
– Camilo Ucros
(Featured photo: xmascarol Creative Commons, Flickr
Photo 1 : kozumel, Creative Commons, Flickr)