A 50-Year Civil War

Recently in Cartagena, Colombia, the government of Colombia and the rebel leadership of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) seemed to have ended one of the longest running civil wars in modern history. Over 50 years of battle between FARC, the government of Colombia, the right-wing paramilitary groups and an assortment of bandas criminales might end in a few days when the Colombian people would vote on a referendum for or against the agreement. If they vote against it, then there will be pressure on the government to renege on its commitments. That would restart the bloody civil war, which killed more than a quarter of a million people.

Tension was heavy across sections of Colombia. Polls suggested that the majority of the population would vote to ratify the peace deal. Exhaustion was the mood. Colombians wanted the war to end. This was not a war with a frontline necessarily, although there were frontlines between FARC areas and the government zones. This was a war across the country, with precious resources squandered in the battle and fear pervasive even far from the battlefield.

Such atmospheric violence is not unknown in Colombia. The civil war that ran for the decade from 1948 is called La Violencia, The Violence. It could be the name of Colombia’s past century, where the elite in this South American nation tried to hold onto the advantages of slavery and colonial rule long after the liberation of the continent from the Spanish. Terrible histories are mirrored in Colombia’s national flag, the top half of which is yellow for the country’s gold, its riches, while the bottom half is shared between the blue of the sea, which defines its borders, and the red of the blood that has spilled inside the country. There is no green here, even as FARC fought over questions of land reform and rural democracy. Part of the agreement between FARC and the Colombian government was to set aside three million hectares to distribute to landless peasants and smallholders. Another part of the agreement would share the State’s powers with the people of the countryside. The way that this would occur is for FARC to gain reserved seats in Congress and funds to transform it into a political party.

Rural localities will be allowed to form their own mechanisms of political rule. These developments out of the agreement will create new symbols—not gold or blood, but perhaps land and freedom?

“The horrible night has ceased,” said Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, who, as the previous Defence Minister, had prosecuted the war against FARC. Now Santos is the peacemaker, pushed by circumstances to avoid his own political history and to reach for the olive branch. He was met at the other end by FARC’s Timoleón Jiménez, who said to the gathered dignitaries in Cartagena, “Our only weapons will be our words.” It is significant that Jiménez apologized unequivocally for FARC’s hand in the violence. “On behalf of the FARC,” he said, “I ask for forgiveness to all innocent victims that were drawn into the war.” Both men had led their sides to war, and now both used a pen made of spent bullets to sign the agreement. It had been a long time in the making. Pushed by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, FARC and the Colombian state decided to seriously engage each other. In 2008, Chavez had said, “The guerrilla war is history. At this moment in Latin America, an armed guerrilla movement is out of place.” He wanted FARC to come above ground, contest elections, and push Colombia out of its conservative rut. That is what FARC now hoped it could do.

But there was no guarantee that the referendum in October would pass. Santos was the Defence Minister under former President Álvaro Uribe, who left office in 2010. Uribe is leading the charge against the deal. He is now a Senator, whose Democratic Centre party hopes for a defeat of the referendum. Uribe believes that the Colombian state should not negotiate with FARC. Amnesty for fighters should be off the table, and indeed, the full force of the Colombian army—backed by the United States —should crush FARC. Uribe shares a great deal with Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa, who prosecuted a war unto the death against the Tamil Tigers. Rajapaksa set aside the peace process in Sri Lanka that began in 2002. He then turned to his military to destroy the Tigers. The UN Report on the Sri Lanka’s government’s war showed that it was almost genocide. It makes for difficult reading. It is what Uribe hopes for Colombia.

“Considering all the challenges and the reactionary forces aligned against it,” Professor Teo Ballve of Colgate College told me, “a winning yes vote is crucial for the accords to have any chance at actually being implemented.” Ballve is from Colombia and a historian of the country’s painful past. He suggests that this is the best agreement possible, and that his fellow Colombians should vote positively for peace. Any other alternative is unimaginably bad. “Peace is hard work,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was at the signing on Monday. Part of that hard work was to resist the immense jingoism of Uribe, who is bent on inflaming families of victims of the violence (his father was killed by the FARC). But Uribe’s Colombia is that of the past. It does not define the present. Dr. Luis Eslava tells me that Colombia is in the midst of a process of great transformation. This began with the 1991 Constitution, which was the outcome of a wide-ranging debate in the country against the entrenched oligarchy. Movements of Afro-Colombians, the Indigenous, LGBTQ, the feminists, the students, workers, peasants, the self-employed, the community mother’s groups, the neighborhood associations, the underemployed and the unemployed “have shown that their dignity cannot be taken away that easily, or at least not without marches, blockades, and informal protests on the streets. FARC will see, Eslava says, that the “country is already full of progressive energy.” It will have to join this energy and build upon it.

Leaders of FARC seem aware of this dynamic. Victoria Sandino, a commander who was part of the peace negotiations, told me that she is ready to build the new Colombia. The war had exhausted her and her comrades, although they are ready to come out of the jungle only because the framework of the peace suggests the possibility of a better country. “We didn’t take up weapons because we felt the need to use violence,” Sandino told me. “We took up weapons because we tried to resolve the land question through democratic means, which was violently responded to by the state. Violence was imposed on us.” If the State truly withdraws its violent reaction to progressive politics, there is no reason for FARC to hold fast to the gun. It seems prepared to engage with democratic currents. There is no other way.

The Results

W hen the referendum results broke, Uribe took to the airwaves with a more conciliatory tone. He knew that he had found a seat at the table. No longer was his tone towards FARC so harsh. “We ask that there is no violence,” said the Senator, “that FARC are protected and that they cease all crime, including drug trafficking, and extortion.” It was important for Uribe to make the point that the vote was not against peace or war, but that it was for a different kind of peace. He appeared very statesman like even though his agenda was very narrow.

Both President Santos and FARC signalled quickly that the vote would not lead them back to war. FARC’s leader, Rodrigo Londono Echeverri, aka Timochenko, said that “peace would triumph.” He pledged that FARC would “maintain its desire for peace and would use words as arms to build a better future.” Santos called for an all-party discussion towards restarting the negotiations.

Uribe will try to get more concessions from FARC whose fighters have been eager for the peace process to come into play. They are exhausted by the fighting and had wanted to return home. Their morale is low, but that does not mean that it would be willing to concede on questions of prosecution for its leadership and its fighters. Gloom prevails across the country.  If the vote had gone the other way, Colombia might have shown the world that even intractable civil wars can come to an end. It would have been a message to Syria and the Congo, a message of the power of negotiation towards a new civil compact. But this did not come to pass. Even as Santos and FARC’s leadership try to maintain their optimism, the return of Uribe suggests that Colombia might turn its back on peace.


Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.