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Colombia Gives Peace A Genuine Chance


Colombia’s government and one of its main rebel forces, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), have agreed to give peace another chance — after 50 years of civil war and failed negotiations. President Juan Manuel Santos announced on 27 August that his government would re-launch negotiations, with the governments of Venezuela, Chile, Norway and Cuba acting as facilitators for the talks. After years of government pursuit of the rebels, first under Álvaro Uribe and then under Santos (who had been Uribe’s defence minister), why this sudden policy shift?

Both camps have realised that neither can win. Even though the rebels suffered many setbacks under Uribe (2002-2010), they have regrouped and regained some strength since 2008. The Farc lost several top leaders in military ambushes, but has been able to launch a counter-offensive against the military in the last four years, using mines, snipers and bomb attacks against infrastructure. According to a recent report by the Colombian Congress (1), in 2011 the Farc had a “significant presence” in a third of Colombia’s municipalities. In response, the Colombian military has increased infiltration and commando raids. These tactics have made the war less visible than it was 10 years ago, but have not diminished its impact on the general population.

Beyond agreement that neither side is able to gain the upper hand, there is another factor: what has really helped shift Colombia towards peace negotiations is the different background of Santos. Uribe came from the landed provincial oligarchy; he sold his family’s land after his father was killed by the Farc in a failed kidnapping in 1983, and dedicated his life to politics, though maintaining ties to his cattle-ranching origins. As well as representing large landowners, he is believed to have ties to drug lords and paramilitary forces: a 1991 US Defense Intelligence Agency report described Uribe as working for the Medellin Cartel (Medellin is his hometown and he briefly served as its mayor) and as a “close personal friend of Pablo Escobar” (2). When he was Colombia’s director of civil aviation in the 1980s, the number of permits for runways and planes increased dramatically. In 2007 Escobar’s lover, Virginia Vallejo, told El País: “Pablo used to say that if it weren’t for that blessed little boy [Uribe], we would have to swim to Miami to get drugs to the gringos” (3).

Uribe has denied these accusations, but it is clear that he and his family have good relations with Colombia’s paramilitary and drug-trafficking forces. Jorge Noguera, Uribe’s former campaign manager and his head of Colombia’s internal intelligence service (DAS), was sentenced in September 2011 to 25 years in prison for helping the paramilitary group United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) to infiltrate the intelligence service which he ran.

Peace before equality

Uribe did admit publicly that inequality had something to do with the civil war, but said that there first had to be peace before inequality could be overcome. “Without peace, there is no investment. Without investment, there are no fiscal resources for the government to invest in the welfare of the people,” Uribe told the BBC in 2004 (4). He had no interest in redistribution policies, such as land reform, and took a neoliberal approach.

His reason for breaking from the Liberal Party and running for president as an independent in 2002 was his rejection of Horacio Serpa, the Liberal candidate, who supported new peace negotiations. For his re-election bid in 2006 he formed his own party, the Social Party of National Unity (“Partido de la U”), breaking the two-party system that had governed Colombia for more than a century.

Uribe’s main pre-condition for negotiations was that first the rebels should unilaterally lay down their arms. This was completely unacceptable to the Farc and the National Liberation Army, given the ruthlessness of the military and rightwing paramilitary groups. In the 20 years prior to Uribe’s presidency there were three attempts at peace negotiations — 1982-85, 1990-92 and 1999-2002 — but none got very far. The failures can mostly be traced to the lack of trust between the sides. The last effort failed also because neither the elite nor the US — whose “Plan Colombia” was supposed to target drug traffickers but largely focused on the rebels — were on board for the negotiations.

It is hard to find someone more enmeshed in Colombia’s political and economic elite than Santos, but his is a different elite. His great uncle, Eduardo Santos, was president from 1938 to 1942 and his cousin was vice president under Uribe. His family owned the only national newspaper, El Tiempo, for nearly a century and his father was its editor for half that time. Santos was educated abroad, studying at the University of Kansas, Harvard, London School of Economics and Tufts. He took his first government job in his 20s as Colombia’s delegate to the International Coffee Organisation in London. From 1991 he went on to hold various government posts, most recently that of defence minister under Uribe. He was elected president in June 2010.

Latin American integration

Santos represents an urban, cosmopolitan, transnational elite and prefers to promote the interests of Colombian transnational capital to those of national landowners. He is less interested in defending landholdings and the paramilitary forces that come with these. His sector has a lot less to lose from land reform and other redistributive policies, which is why in June 2011 he signed an important law that would return land to two million Colombians internally displaced by civil war in the previous 25 years (5).

Uribe was interested in tying Colombia’s fate to that of the US and made the passage of the Colombia-US free trade agreement a top priority during his presidency. Santos has different priorities: Latin American integration and the international growth of Colombia (South America’s second largest economy), through its membership of the Civets grouping (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, South Africa) which, like the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), seeks to break up a unipolar world while maintaining the interest of investors.

Santos made a conscious effort from the beginning of his presidency to depolarise internal Colombian politics, rather than exacerbate conflicts, as has usually happened. Unlike Uribe, he has included in his cabinet representatives from all political parties, except for the leftist group Alternative Democratic Pole. When Uribe realised that Santos was on this new path, he turned against Santos and has now become his most ardent opponent. When Santos appointed an opposition member as his labour minister, Uribe called the decision “hypocritical” and a “signal of hostility against Uribism” (6).

The split between Uribe and Santos represents a breaking apart of the former governing coalition. During Uribe’s presidency the urban transnational elite worked with the rural national elite. Nonetheless, while some policies have changed, many are unchanged, particularly Colombia’s orientation towards neoliberal economic policies.

‘Negotiation is the most desirable outcome’

In theory, this split is not good for the peace negotiations because all key sectors ought to be at the table, especially if one of the main topics, land reform, has a direct impact on one of the former coalition partners. However, perhaps to address this problem, Santos appointed two hardline retired generals to his negotiating team. The lack of backing from Uribe’s landed oligarchy is less of a problem because many other Colombian business interests do support the peace negotiations. According to a recent study by the foundation Ideas for Peace, which interviewed 32 high-level business leaders in key urban centres, “The majority of business leaders believe that negotiation is the most probable and most desirable outcome to the armed conflict in Colombia” (7).

The previous negotiations were overshadowed by US military operations. In the 1980s it was the cold war, in the 1990s the war against drugs, and in the 2000s the war on terrorism. Now that all three are winding down, at least in Colombia, and the influence of the US is declining, there is a real chance that an agreement can be reached.

The mediation of the presidents of Venezuela and of Chile could play a decisive role; Hugo Chávez and Sebastian Piñera represent opposite ends of the political spectrum (and are both Latin Americans), which increases the chance that they will be listened to. This is especially true for Chávez: though he is accused of being sympathetic towards the Farc, he is strongly opposed to its strategy of armed conflict because it has serious negative consequences for Venezuela, such as millions of Colombian refugees and the destabilisation of Venezuela’s border region.

Since laying down arms was not a precondition for the negotiations, the breaking of any ceasefire agreement cannot endanger the proceedings. In previous negotiations, any military action always gave an excuse to discontinue the negotiations and deepen mistrust. So while the transition from Uribe to Santos represents a minor shift from one sector of the country’s elite to another, it may have enormous consequences for Colombia.  

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