Peace in FARC time

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, October 6, 2015


The handshake between Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC guerrilla leader Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, (aka Timoleón Jimenez or Timochenko), on September 23, in Cuba is the most important step yet in the ongoing negotiations to end the 50-year old conflict between the armed revolutionary guerrillas and the Government of Colombia.


The peace process initiated in November, 2012, has brought Colombia closer than ever before to a negotiated peace settlement. Though there are strong and compelling objections against signing a peace agreement with the guerillas, Colombia will be better off if the government assumes the high political costs of making concessions to the rebels in order to bring about lasting peace in the country.


The ongoing guerrilla conflict in Colombia has been going for 50 years. When the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) emerged in 1964 — and did other groups, like the National Liberation Army (ELN) — the world was very different. The guerrillas sought to bring about a revolution that would establish a Communist regime in a mostly rural country. Today, most of the early revolutionaries are dead, Communism is no longer an option in the world, democracy has consolidated in Colombia, the country is primarily urban and most citizens want the armed conflict to end. The revolutionary groups have evolved into criminal organizations with ties to drug-trafficking and other criminal activities. The effort to fight the revolutionaries led to the creation of paramilitary forces that also ventured into criminal activities. The Colombian Armed Forces have shifted their primary responsibility from protecting the borders to fighting the guerillas. More than 200,000 people have died in the conflict over the past five decades and millions have been forced from their homes. This war has lasted for so long that no one cares anymore as to why the conflict began in the first place.


Securing peace requires different skills and strengths, different to those needed when winning war. After the Colombian government, under the leadership of former president Álvaro Uribe, weakened the FARC guerillas, Santos has made significant progress in forging a peace agreement with the guerillas to bring to an end the 50-year old civil war.


As with any negotiation, the government has had to make difficult compromises and society will be forced to renounce serving justice to many human rights violators on both sides of the conflict. But the benefits of ending the conflict far surpass the costs of negotiating with the armed guerrillas.



However, not everyone is in favour of finding a negotiated solution to end the war. Uribe leads those who oppose negotiating with the guerrillas. Under his presidency (2002-2010), the Colombian Armed Forces made significant strides against the guerrillas. Uribe brought the guerrillas to their knees, but failed to fully defeat them.


Santos, who served as Minister of Defence under Uribe, championed the escalation of the military campaign against the FARC and successfully campaigned to succeed Uribe in the 2010 presidential election. As head of state, Santos began to distance himself from Uribe’s stance and shifted his former focus on military action to finding a way for the guerrillas to agree to end conflict. Rather than engaging in a long confrontation that might never end, Santos chose to offer the guerrillas an opportunity to negotiate what would amount to a formal defeat for their efforts to bring about a Communist revolution in Colombia.


Under the auspices of the Cuban government, the Santos administration and the FARC guerrillas began negotiations in 2012. A number of thorny issues have delayed the peace process. Justice for human rights violations — committed by both sides — has been at the centre of the controversy. While the guerillas want amnesty, the government has pushed for the most notorious crimes to be brought to trial. The notion that some human rights violators will go unpunished though finds little support in a country that lived through the horrors of abuses committed by all sides involved in the conflict.


President Santos has bet his political legacy on finding a negotiated solution. Though a successful end to negotiations would make Santos a prime candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, there are many things that can still go wrong, as the two sides work out the final details to demilitarize Colombia and secure a transition for the guerrillas fighters into civilian life. Yet, Santos’ decision to push forward with the negotiations — despite the opposition of Uribe and many others — is commendable.


The handshake between democratically elected Santos and Timochenko was a historic moment. A committed democrat, elected to represent those who have suffered from the armed uprising, Santos must have found it very difficult to shake the hands of a guerrilla leader who is personally responsible for the killings of civilians. Though the Colombian Armed Forces have also committed crimes — and have overlooked criminal activities undertaken by rightwing paramilitary forces — the FARC have been notoriously violent and have a long history of crimes against humanity.


Yet the Colombian president — a right-of-centre politician who comes from a oligarchic family — was very brave in paying the political cost, in signaling his will to put the painful past behind. If the government and the guerrillas are able to sign the final agreement, before the deadline set for late March 2016, Santos will make himself the most controversial, but also the most significant president of Colombia over the last 60 years.