At the edge of peace

Print edition : December 11, 2015

FARC-EP negotiators Tanja Nijmeijer (foreground) and Victoria Sandino Palmera going over the documents in Havana. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Colombian commanders of the FARC-EP (from left) Ivan Marquez, Pablo Catatumbo and Rodrigo Granda arrive at Convention Palace in Havana for the peace talks with the Colombian government on November 9. Photo: YAMIL LAGE/AFP

Victoria Sandino and Tanja Nijmeijer with Leila Zerrougui (centre), United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, in Havana. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Anticipation sweeps Colombia over peace talks with the FARC-EP rebels. This time the hope is that the terrifying example of the 1980s will not be repeated.

On September 23, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos shook hands with Timoléon Jiménez, commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP). Standing between them was Raúl Castro, President of Cuba.

The handshake had been in the making since 2012, when the Colombian state and the FARC-EP began this round of peace talks. Peace has not arrived in Colombia yet. This cordial meeting was to firm up the outline of the agreement. More deliberation has followed this handshake, and it continues. It is not easy to walk away from six decades of conflict.

War between the two parties began in 1958. Numbers do not do justice to the suffering that this war has produced—over 200,000 dead, tens of thousands missing, and five million forcibly displaced. This peace agreement is not the first between the two parties. In 1985, the FARC-EP morphed into a political party, the Patriotic Union, which, in good faith, attempted to fight for its agenda peacefully. When the Patriotic Union did well in the 1986 elections, a murder campaign led by the forces close to the state wiped out its activists across the country. The violence sent the FARC-EP back into the forests. Anticipation across Colombia is palpable for a new time of peace. It is hoped that this time the terrifying example of the 1980s will not be repeated.

Thirty FARC-EP members and Colombian state negotiators have been in Havana, Cuba, going over a five-point agenda laid out in the “General Agreement for Ending the Conflict and Constructing a Stable and Long-Lasting Peace”, signed on August 26, 2012. The discussions have been uneven, with bouts of violence in Colombia disrupting the peacemakers. Humberto de la Calle, former Vice President of Colombia, heads the government’s team. Over his career he has built credibility with the military (during his time as Minister of the Interior) and the United States (as Colombia’s representative to the Organisation of American States). All the stakeholders of the government side trust him. Marín Arango (known as Iván Márquez) leads the FARC-EP team, which he also led in the ill-fated 1999-2002 peace talks.

The Cubans are at the table as the guarantors of the talks. They are represented by Rodolfo Benítez Verson, a well-respected diplomat who was previously in the Cuban delegation to the United Nations in New York. No peace negotiations in recent decades have taken place without a Scandinavian representative, which is why Norway’s diplomat Dag Nylander is at the table. But most importantly, the U.S. has an envoy in the room—Bernard Aronson. The U.S. has been a key ally of the Colombian state. Its presence has been essential.

Seventeen of the 30 FARC-EP delegates are women. Among them is Victoria Sandino Palmera, who has been a guerrilla combatant for 23 years. Victoria Sandino was a militant with the Communist Party and then with the Patriotic Union. It also includes Tanja Nijmeijer, a Dutch citizen who joined the FARC-EP in 2003. Victoria Sandino and Tanja Nijmeijer spoke to me about the negotiations and their hopes for them. Both are realistic about the outcome, but also optimistic about it. “I want people to be able to live the lives they deserve,” said Victoria Sandino, “in peace, with a piece of land to work on.” That is the measure of success. Most Colombians concur.

Roots of rebellion

For the first time since 1970, the government has conducted a National Agricultural Census in Colombia. Economic inequality in Colombia is dramatic, with half the population in poverty and three-quarters of the youth without any education. Land is not available to people, and for those who have it there is minimal access to agricultural machinery and to agricultural credit. Tania Guzmán Pardo, a law professor at Javeriana University (Bogotá), who wrote the last National Human Development Report for Colombia in 2011, told me: “The land is still extremely concentrated which, in my opinion, has been the root of our armed conflict.”

Efforts over the past century to redress economic inequality have led inexorably to violence from the landed against the landless. A modest reform agenda pushed by the Revolutionary Socialist Party in 1926 and its legendary orator María Cano as well as by the Liberal Party’s Jorge Eliécer Gaitán drew into the political world tens of thousands of coffee, banana and oil workers. Gaitán was assassinated in 1946, which brought the working people to the streets of Bogota, Colombia’s capital. This Bogotazo triggered an alliance of the dominant parties, the Catholic Church and the military—with U.S. support—to crack down on the popular upsurge. La Violencia, which lasted until 1948, took the lives of 200,000 Colombians. The elite parties merged into the National Front and prevented the growth of any kind of political space for the people. Colombia did not need a military coup. This was a coup of the elites that, in large measure, remains intact today.

Roots of terror

President Santos does not face his adversary in Havana, but in Bogota. The FARC-EP is fully committed to the peace process. It is Santos’ former boss, two-time president Álvaro Uribe, who leads the bloc against the talks. After the September handshake, Uribe tweeted: “Santos does not mean that peace is close. It is a sellout to the FARC.” In 2013, Uribe and his closest associated founded the Democratic Centre Party to fight their former colleague, Santos, over the peace accord. They lost to Santos in the 2014 presidential election.

The FARC-EP’s Victoria Sandino describes Santos as the face of the “traditional oligarchy”, while Uribe is that of the “new or mafia oligarchy”. The two faces were allies in 2000 against the gains of the FARC-EP, but they have now fractured. Guzmán, the law professor, says that the elite is divided on geographical lines, with a national elite that is more disposed to peace talks and a regional elite that is largely opposed to them. This regional elite has deep roots in the countryside, where—as a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) report noted—two-thirds of the prime farmland is held by 0.4 per cent of the population. It is this regional elite that had actively formed the right-wing paramilitary death squads that brought terror to the population. Uribe remains the standard-bearer for that segment of the population. Victoria Sandino’s use of the term “mafia” is not idiosyncratic. In 2006, the former head of Colombia’s intelligence services, Ramiro Bejarano Guzmán, said: “President Uribe has made Colombian society one that is professing the culture of paramilitarism. In Colombia, we are headed toward a mafia state.”

Against the modest gains made by the FARC-EP, the “mafia state” turned to the U.S. for assistance. This is not the first time that the U.S. has intervened in Colombia. In 1962, under Plan Lazo, the U.S. provided assistance to the Colombian state against communist militants. Plan Colombia, inaugurated in 1999, was set up in collaboration between the Colombian state and the U.S. government. As part of the War on Drugs, the Colombian state now received billions of dollars from the U.S. to obliterate the FARC-EP, which they now accused of drug running. After 2001, Colombia yoked its fight against the FARC-EP to the Global War on Terror, using every means—including chemical weapons —against the FARC-EP and anyone who stood against the landlords. Human Rights Watch warned that the right-wing paramilitaries had become “narco-terrorists”, whose violence had been given immunity by the Colombian state, led at that time by Uribe. That the Colombian Supreme Court is considering charges against Uribe for his ties to paramilitaries shows that the tide might have turned against the “mafia state”—buoyed by the paramilitaries and the narco-terrorists.

Roots of peace

The FARC-EP grew out of the Communist Party, which had been declared illegal in the political coup of the 1950s. The shell of liberal institutions remained in Colombia, with little space for any alternative politics. Both the national and the regional elites saw the National Front as their salvation. They did not want to redistribute land or to provide social goods to their fellow citizens. Nonetheless, over the decades, the National Front saw the adverse costs of the conflict and agreed to come to the table for peace talks on many occasions—1983-84, 1987-88, 1991-92, 1998-99, 1999-2002 and now.

The FARC-EP, as Victoria Sandino told me, was always willing to talk peace. “We didn’t take up weapons because we felt the need to use violence,” she said. “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.” So, when the state opened the door for peace talks, the FARC-EP responded positively.

Santos, who was Uribe’s Defence Minister, might not be entirely speaking for himself at these peace negotiations.

Victoria Sandino and Tanja Nijmeijer told me that they believed the Colombian elites were on the sidelines. The U.S., which had played a key role in building up Uribe and the paramilitary apparatus, decided that the FARC-EP had been weakened as much as possible and that the next outcome was peace talks. Santos is stuck with the Uribe mafia-state, but he is also the product of it.

“It is not ‘poor’ Santos who has to deal with the warmongering factions,” said Victoria Sandino. “It is the gringos [foreigners] who have to see how they will deal with what they created themselves”, namely the paramilitary state. That is why, Tanja Nijmeijer said, “the presence of Bernard Aronson, U.S. special envoy to the peace talks, is so important to us. We know whom we are talking to.”

Why have the U.S. and Santos’ section of the Colombian elite come to the table? Teo Ballvé, professor at Colgate University and author of the forthcoming Territorial Masquerades: Frontier State Formation in Northwest Colombia, told me that sections of the elite are frustrated with the lack of economic penetration in areas held by the FARC-EP and in the war zone. They want access to “the new spaces of investment that a deal could open up, particularly around mining, hydrocarbons, and agribusiness development in the one-time rebel no-go zones”. But Ballvé also notes that the Santos government, and the U.S., have had to respond to the increasing alienation of Colombia from the “broader ideological shift in Latin America, which was increasingly leaving Colombia out”. When Santos came to power he hastily repaired relations with Venezuela and Ecuador, two of its neighbours who are part of the Left tide in the continent. The war had become anachronistic. It was time for peace.

Deals on paper

Negotiations continue in Havana, but no final deal is on the horizon. The September 23 agreement is not yet completed. Elements of it remain unaddressed, notably the issue of paramilitaries and a real ceasefire. Santos passed a Victims Law in 2011 that gave modest reparations to civilians. His Land Funds project seeks to address the core problem of economic inequality. But, as Ballvé put it, “land restitution is not land reform”. Santos wants to distribute unused land and land seized from drug traffickers in, what Ballvé calls, “the most inequitable countryside on the planet”.

None of the gestures from the Santos administration provide confidence that the root cause of the violence will be settled. The negotiations in Havana have produced a Comprehensive Rural Reform, which would include not only massive land reform but also restrictions on foreign ownership of land, mining and energy exploitation and free-trade agreements. The very incentives that Ballvé says inspire the Colombian elites to this peace deal are what the FARC-EP opposes. The way ahead is, therefore, unclear. Nonetheless, the FARC negotiators remain positive. FARC-EP leader Pablo Catatumbo and General Óscar Naranjo have formed a commission to study the security conditions for the FARC-EP as it comes out of the forest. They fear that disarmament could lead to a wave of assassinations and murders similar to what took place in 1986 against the Patriotic Union. That, said Victoria Sandino, “is the key question”. Paramilitaries, who now have a life of their own, will need to be somehow corralled.

The Colombian government intimates that the deal should be taken to the population for a referendum. The FARC-EP prefers a National Constituent Assembly, which would draw in politically marginal groups who would not be heard in a yes-or-no vote. Such groups include indigenous people and Afro-Colombians, peasants and workers, women and students, gays and lesbians, exiles and refugees.

Whether Santos can deliver such an Assembly is to be seen. Colombian elites might not have the appetite for this much democracy.

Victoria Sandino is ready to make peace. She wants to meet her family once more. But there is more than that. She wants to find the daughter of her comrade-in-arms Laura, who died in combat. “I want to tell her,” she said, “that her mother was an exceptional woman. I want to transfer all the love I felt for Laura to her daughter.”

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