Santos Won. But When Will Peace Win in Colombia?

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24

Ganó la paz!” “Peace has won!” No matter where you looked on June 16, the day after the reelection of rightwing president Juan Manuel Santos, you could see it: on the cover of Semana, Colombia’s leading opinion magazine, on Twitter, in the papers, and on the lips of talk show hosts and politicians across the political spectrum. As many have noted, these presidential elections indeed became a de facto “referendum on peace,” as Santos hinged his campaign on completing peace negotiations with the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the oldest and largest Marxist guerrilla group in Latin America, while his opponent, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, presented himself as a hardline opponent of any concessions to the guerrillas. Officially launched in October 2012, these negotiations would finally put an end to more than 50 years of civil war between the FARC and the Colombian state.

However, lost in the media celebrations was the question of how the end of the Official armed conflict would impact the unofficial campaign of ongoing violence against unionists, human rights activists, and dissidents, which demobilized guerrillas will likely encounter if the talks are successful. Even more fundamentally, the press refuses to ask how the end of a formal guerrilla war will impact the informal class war that has been waged for generations against workers and campesinos across the country. Who would win and who would lose in a Pax Colombiana?

Santos’ opponent, the rightwing economist Óscar Iván Zuluaga, was not interested in finding out. As a staunch supporter of Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s earlier anti-negotiation rightwing president (2002-2010), Zuluaga promised to squash the peace talks and reinstate Uribe’s policy of “democratic security” to destroy the FARC. Much to the dismay of Colombian activists and human rights advocates, Zuluaga won the first round of voting, although he was eventually defeated in the second round, though by a slim margin. With just short of 51% of the vote, Juan Manuel Santos was reelected President of Colombia, thanks, unquestionably, to the support of Colombia’s ‘institutional left.’ This included Clara López, former presidential candidate of the leftist Polo Democrático party and rival to Santos in the first round, Anatanas Mockus, former mayor of Bogotá and presidential candidate in 2010, and Ivan Cépeda, senator-elect and respected human rights activist. But now that the dust has settled, now that the magazine covers are beginning to fade away, now that the Santos administration has emerged victorious over Uribe via Zuluaga, can we ask: when will peace—that is, a true peace grounded in social justice—win in Colombia?

Of course, we should first ask what, exactly, is meant by ‘peace’ in these negotiations. Peace, in this case, means ending nearly a half-century’s worth of conflict since the FARC was established in 1964 in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution and amidst the Cold War (which never ended in this part of the world). Towards this goal, the FARC and government negotiators have agreed to a six-point peace agenda addressing the following pressing subjects at the core of the conflict: 1. Land and agricultural reform; 2. Political participation; 3. Disarmament; 4. Illicit drugs; 5. Rights of the victims; and 6. Implementation of the peace deal. On May 26, 2013, at the conclusion of the ninth round of negotiations, both parties came to a historic agreement on land reform, perhaps the most contentious of agenda points given that Colombia has one of the highest rates of land concentration in the world with 80% of land owned by 14% of landowners, while millions of Colombians have been forcibly displaced by rightwing paramilitaries, guerrillas, drug lords, or the Colombian military. Given the fact that the FARC emerged out of agrarian unrest fueled by land monopolization, this land reform agreement is certainly no small achievement. On November 6, 2013, both parties reached agreement on the issue of “political participation,” yet another major issue to be tackled given that Colombia has had a rather bloody history incorporating demobilized ex-guerrillas and guerrilla supporters into the electoral sphere. Within this agreement, the state has committed to securing guarantees for those exercising peaceful political opposition, in addition to working towards reforms to help the formation and participation of new political movements and parties.

We should be clear that ‘peace’ (that is, the peace negotiations) itself has its own longer history in Colombia, for this is the fourth round of talks between the FARC and the government since the first attempt in 1982. That year, then-president Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) began talks with several guerrilla groups, including the FARC, the Workers’ Self-defense Movement (Movimiento de Autodefensa Obrera, ADO), the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación, EPL), and the revolutionary-populist M-19. Out of these talks emerged the creation of the political party, the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica, UP), the political arm of the guerrillas within the electoral arena. From the late 1980s into the early 1990s, just as the UP was gaining momentum in local and regional elections, rightwing paramilitaries and other forces murdered more than 3,000 of its rank-and-file members, including unionists, teachers, lawyers, farmers, and doctors, in addition to 2 of the party’s presidential candidates, 7 congressmen, 13 deputies, 11 mayors, and 69 city councilmen. More than 1,000 were disappeared as well in what many rightfully have called the “genocide of the Patriotic Union.” Especially in light of the reemergence of the Patriotic Union, which reconstituted itself as a party in 2013 and ran a vice presidential candidate in the most recent elections, how can the Colombian government guarantee that this political bloodbath won’t happen yet again? This is precisely why the second peace-agenda point on “political participation” and security for demobilized ex-guerrillas is so crucial. Yet, if the current state of threats and assassinations against left organizations and social movements is any indication, we certainly can’t hold our breath. As just one example, 48 political leaders of Marcha Patriótica (Patriotic March), a radical leftist political and social movement founded in 2012, have been murdered since May 2014, leading many human rights organizations to sound the alarm bells of an impending similarly murderous strategy against this group.

But even if the government can guarantee a degree of security, even if the negotiations succeed, what will peace truly look like in neoliberal Colombia where the ruling classes and rightwing paramilitaries will continue to run the show? Let us not forget that Santos, speaking in Valencia, Spain in November 2012, made very clear that the government is “not negotiating the State. We are not negotiating the development model. We are not negotiating public policies.” But it is exactly these historically capitalist and state policies that spurred the creation of the entire conflict in the first place, and will only continue to exacerbate the underlying foundational inequalities of a post-conflict Colombia.

Indeed, amidst the rightful celebrations of a potential pact, it’s important to remember the long track record against true peace and justice that Santos and administrations like his have developed over the years. Let us not forget that Santos was the Defense Minister when the “falsos positivos” (“false positives”) scandal erupted in 2008, where members of the military recruited poor Colombians on the street, offering them jobs, only later to murder them and dress them up as guerrillas in order to increase body counts of enemy combatants in exchange for promotions and other benefits. Poor Colombians like Julian Oviedo, a 19-year-old construction worker who was killed by troops on the outskirts of Bogotá after he told his mother he got a lead for a job.

Let us not forget that it was under the Santos administration that the Free Trade Agreement, long stalled thanks to the hard work by unions, NGOs, and social movements, was finally passed, devastating small farmers whose local products can not compete with heavily subsidized, genetically modified US products flooding the market.

Or that it was under Santos that the agrarian strike erupted, a strike that Santos himself refused to acknowledge when he infamously proclaimed “tal paro agrario no existe” (“that agrarian strike does not exist”), or the neoliberal Law 30 initiated by Santos which attempted to privatize public higher education in Colombia that was valiantly defeated by thousands of high school and university students who went on strike for months throughout the country in 2011.

Or the fact that, just a few days before Colombia’s historic first AfroColombian Congress held in Quibdó in August 2013, Santos claimed that the legal mechanisms of ‘prior consultations’ and ‘public councils’ which protect AfroColombian territories from violent displacement, were “a headache” and “a very perverse instrument to delay the progress of the country,” categorically continuing the long legacy of racism against black communities who supposedly ‘stand in the way’ of the nation’s ‘progress.’ And the list goes on.

Although a successful resolution to the war may open space for broader popular mobilization, it’s disingenuous to presume that political peace will yield social peace. “Of course we want peace!” writes Colombian activist and Bogotá-based writer Steven Crux, “…but it is impossible for me to lie to my family, my neighbors, my classmates, my co-workers, my comrades, telling them that peace is possible while capitalism continues to exploit us and the state—whichever state—continues to oppress us.” In a neoliberal state, we can rest assured that workers and campesinos will still find themselves in a state of war despite the formal Pax Colombiana.


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