Is it Time for Peace with Colombia’s Newfound Optimism?

From the ‘La Uribe Agreements’ in 1982, to the empty chair at ‘El Caguán’ in 1999 and most recently the hand shake in Havana, there has been 30 years of fruitless peace talks in Colombia. But on September 24th Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos and FARC’s (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) leader “Timochenko” set a six-month deadline to sign a peace deal. As the peace talks have progressed, there is good reason to believe that FARC will put an end to their 50 years of armed mobilization against the government. What has changed in the country over the past few years to make this possible?

Colombia throughout the 20th century was governed by a two-party system in which disputes over power were plagued by violence, while any other forms of political representation were systematically excluded. High levels of poverty, inequality, and political exclusion have fueled the internal conflict in which extreme groups from both the right and left have long fought the government.

This is not the first attempt to reach a peace deal with the FARC, three previous talks were held in 1982, 1992, and 1999. As part of the ‘La Uribe Agreements’, the government in 1982 opened the channels for the insurgent groups to gain legal political representation. The creation of ‘Patriotic Union’ (UP) in 1984 made it possible to reunite different leftist movements under one party, which ended up including FARC, other insurgent groups and the communist party. At the time, hope was that the UP would be able to offer a legal and peaceful alternative to the political violence and internal strife.

Former leaders Andrés Pastran and Manuel Marulada in a former round of peace talks – eventually proved unsuccessful. Picture: Silvia Andrea Moreno, Flickr

Unfortunately the Colombian democratic regime not only failed to protect UP, but allegedly participated actively in the extermination of the newly born party. As persons associated with insurgent groups became politically exposed, they became military targets in what has been labeled ‘The Red Dance’. After the extermination of more than 4,000 of UP’s leaders, the party disappeared from the political arena. Nevertheless, in the late 1980’s the peace dialogues between the government and most of the insurgent groups yielded its fruits. After the armistice most groups abandoned their weapons and were able to join the political arena, with the exception of the FARC and ELN. As part of the process a new Constitution was enacted, which strengthened democratic rights and the division of power. However, the newly recognized political groups suffered the same faith as UP and many members were killed by right wing paramilitary in the following years.

It was not until 1999 that another major peace dialogue began when Andres Pastrana, Colombia’s president at the time, came into office with a peace process as one of his flagship electoral promises. In the same year the government established a demilitarized zone of 42,000 square kilometers in San Vicente del Caguán, with the intention to provide an adequate venue for the peace talks. Despite these actions, the opening ceremony of the peace talks was marked by the absence of FARC leader, Manuel Marulanda, and the so-called ‘empty chair’. After three years of failed dialogues military activities regarding FARC; public opinion grew increasingly cynical about the process, which finally collapsed in early 2002.

FARC has long been shaping the political scene of colombia. Could this new round of peace talks see the group progress to less violent ways in doing so? Picture: Silvia Andrea Moreno, Flickr

The failure of the Caguán peace talks gave momentum for a different approach and in 2002 Alvaro Uribe, who vowed to defeat the FARC, was elected president of Colombia. Under his eight years of presidency the armed forces waged an unprecedented offensive against FARC, significantly diminishing their military capabilities. However, Uribe’s military offensive is stained by allegations of Human Rights Violations and his support for right-wing militias. During his time in office transitional justice was introduced within the peace agreements he brokered with the right wing insurgents, the (United-Self Defense Forces of Colombia) AUC. Transitional justice became a cornerstone of the peace process as an instrument to balance justice, promote truth and bring about the end of hostilities.

As Uribe’s term ended his former defense minister, Juan Manual Santos, was elected president in 2010, in what was seen as a continuation of Uribe’s hard line legacy. However Santos, shortly after his election, distanced himself from Uribe, creating the potential for brokering an end to the armed conflict.

The first contact between the FARC and the government was through back channels, in order to avoid the negative public perception that resulted from the failed peace talks in 1999. Unlike previous attempts the talks took place outside of Colombia. As the peace talks have advanced they have gained the approval and support of the general population, despite the intense criticism by diverse sectors of society, lead by Uribe.

There are critical points that have facilitated the willingness of both parties to sit down and negotiate a peaceful end to the conflict. Despite their efforts, neither side appears to be able to militarily defeat the other. During both parties’ periods of military dominance, neither the government nor FARC was able to be gain outright victory in their conflict. Also, the introduction of transitional justice has opened a new legal framework to deal with the needs and goals of an effective peace process. Moreover the recent electoral gains by former insurgents, both at home and across the continent, have nurtured the idea that this time it will be possible to participate in the political arena.

This set of peace talks try to avoid the errors of the past. The fact that the talks have taken place abroad and without a demilitarized zone has reduced the pressure from other actors and public opinion. Despite the difficult moments that the talks have encountered, both parties have made goodwill gestures, which in turn have been increasingly supported by the public. Though there is not a bilateral ceasefire, there has been a reduction in the intensity of the conflict. The road ahead is long and will have to include deep social and economic reforms. However, there is genuine hope that it will be conducted in a democratic and peaceful environment.

Camilo Téllez

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