A possible first step towards peace was reached in the Colombian government’s struggle with the FARC guerrilla group came on the 26th May 2013, when negotiators at the talks in Havana announced a deal on land reform. For Colombia, this agreement on one of the six agreed upon items on the peace agenda raises the real possibility of a political settlement to a war that has lasted nearly 50 years. For Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos it is a part vindication for his backing of the talks, of which many Colombians are sceptical.
Since 1964, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) have been waging war against the Colombian government and the landowning elites alleged to dominate it. The ideologically Marxist group began as the armed wing of the Colombian Communist Party born from the crucible of Cuban inspired revolutionary socialism. While many of Colombia’s neighbours have all at some point in their histories experienced insurgencies which have eventually ended, there are many theories about why Colombia’s has endured.
Colombia is in many ways cursed by its own geography, since its mountainous terrain makes it almost ideal for guerrilla armies to operate in. The country was originally settled by Spanish conquistadores who had their eye on the abundant gold reserves within it, more than they did the logistical problem of setting up a functioning nation-state. The logistical problems are clearly evident in the way that whole towns are often precariously linked up with each other by dirt roads snaking through mountain passes. Consequently, while the presence of government is felt pretty consistently in the cities, out in the country the government authority and any possible relief it can bring to Colombia’s poor is left wanting.
The mountainous terrain of Colombia also provides the ideal conditions for the cultivation of cocaine. Under pressure to find sources of funding to continue their fight the FARC have become increasingly reliant on the cocaine trade as a source of income. This has led to some speculation that certain elements of the FARC benefitting from this illicit trade, less dedicated to the ideological struggle, may find it more profitable to keep fighting. The proliferation of the cocaine trade in Colombia has further benefitted the FARC, by encouraging the Colombian Government to spread its security forces thin to tackle drug cartel operations. This is in addition to tackling Colombia’s other insurgent group, the ELN, National Liberation Army.
Recent years have seen the fortunes of the FARC decline, in no small measure due to the large military campaign directed against it by former President Alvaro Uribe from 2002 till 2010. By one estimate, while the FARC could field approximately 40,000 troops in 2000, presently this figure has gone down to around 18,000. Their diminishing military effectiveness could explain one of the group’s motives in participating in talks.
The other five items on the agenda for talks between FARC and the Colombian Government include: disarmament, political participation, illegal drugs, rights of war victims and peace deal implementation. Disarmament may prove difficult due to FARC suspicions about government collusion with right wing paramilitary groups, which were originally established as a counter-reaction to leftist guerrilla activity. While these groups have allegedly declined in numbers in recent years, suspicions still abound at the extent of their demobilisation. To add to the security concerns of the Colombian Government, many of these paramilitary groups have, like the FARC, increasingly turned towards the Cocaine trade.
The goal of bringing the FARC into the political process will also face many difficulties. Supporters of the FARC are disillusioned with the Colombian political system which is still dominated by Colombia’s oldest parties, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party. These parties are in turn seen by the same Colombians as being dominated by political elites that hail from many of Colombia’s most powerful families that still dominate the economy through Trade Associations, a tradition carried over from the colonial era.
In addition previous attempts by the supporters of the FARC to enter formal politics have not been successful. Most notably, in the 1980s these supporters founded the Patriotic Union (UP). The initial success of the UP was quashed in the face of massacres by right wing paramilitary groups committed against its members on a staggering scale, 4,000-6000 dead by one estimate.
For President Santos, time is of the essence for the talks to succeed. If they do not, it could hurt him politically, especially in the upcoming 2014 elections. There is a potential for Colombians to note the success of former President Uribe’s military offensive against the FARC in contrast to a lack of progress at the talks to favour a return to the military option. Alvaro Uribe himself is running for Congress on an anti-talks platform, effectively making himself a political lightning rod for such sentiment. From the perspective of the FARC, an organisation that has outlived many Colombian Presidential terms, they can afford to wait longer for a better deal than Santos can. Indeed for many members of the FARC, fighting may be ultimately a better deal for them than making peace.
Yet only this week, a Colombian court handed down 40-year jail sentences to two top level FARC leaders, one of whom is participating in the peace talks in Havana. Timoshenko, one of the two members found guilty for charges including terrorism, said that the group were not willing to surrender their weapons nor serve prison sentences.
The comment comes only a few days after an official statement on FARC’s website that suggested that a new constitution would ensure a finalised peace agreement.
This leaves President Santos with a few options. He is in a position to play political ‘good cop/bad cop’ with the FARC, by convincing them that once the bad cops get into power in congress, life will become very difficult for the FARC. To sweeten the deal, President Santos could even outline serious steps to bring the right wing paramilitary groups and their criminal networks to heel, thus presenting the Colombian Government as a fair partner for peace. Second he must sell the talks to the Colombian population. If this is shrewdly linked to President Santos’s modernisation programme for Colombia, this could be sold as a bold step for Colombia move away from its reputation for endemic violence.
Observers in the region note the potential for Colombia to stand out as an emergent market, especially given the prevalence of drug violence in nearby Mexico, a potential boom market for low cost manufacturing. If violence decreases in Colombia there is potential for the two countries to become rivals to foreign investors in the region. It is in President Santos’ interests and ultimately Colombia’s, for Santos to sell the talks as an opportunity and not a capitulation.