Colombia’s Eternal Conflict: Will There Be Peace in Our Time?

Timoleon ‘Timochenko’ Jiménez, new leader of the FARC: call for peace.Timoleon ‘Timochenko’ Jiménez, the supreme commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), opened the New Year by issuing a public statement announcing that the Marxist guerrilla group is willing to engage in peace talks with the Colombian government as long as those negotiations addressed ‘the privatisations, the deregulation, the absolute freedom of trade and investment, the environmental degradation, market democracy, the military doctrine’. In essence, the guerrillas are demanding, as they have done for decades, that any peace agreement would require a public debate about the implementation of the neoliberal, or ‘free-market’, economic model that they so vehemently oppose.

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos responded to the FARC’s statement in the same manner as his predecessor Alvaro Uribe, by declaring that the government would not engage in any talks unless the guerrillas released all their captives and unilaterally ceased all hostilities. The government’s unstated position, evident in its approach to previous negotiations, is that the neoliberal agenda is non-negotiable and that the only issues open for discussion are the logistics related to the demobilization of the guerrillas.

In the early 1990s, the FARC engaged in exploratory talks with the government of President César Gaviria and called for any official negotiations to be based on a 12-point agenda. The principal points of that agenda were the implementation of neoliberalism and the exploitation of the country’s natural resources. But as Colombian journalist Alfredo Molano noted, ‘For their part, government spokespeople argued that significant economic changes were impossible, since Colombia was now part of a globalized economy that imposed its own obligatory rules’ [1]. In the eyes of the guerrillas, it was precisely this latter point that lay at the root of the country’s social and economic problems because the neoliberal global economy undermined the sovereignty of Colombia and its people. Ultimately, the exploratory talks collapsed.

In 1999, President Andrés Pastrana agreed to the FARC’s 12-point agenda and negotiations were initiated with the economy being the first point to be addressed. But talks ultimately stalled after two years because of the government’s continued unwillingness to negotiate the neoliberal model. The launching of Plan Colombia in 2000 had made Colombia the third-largest recipient of US military aid, thereby providing the government with a disincentive to continue with peace talks and a renewed belief in the possibility of achieving a military solution to the conflict.

While it was presented as a counter-narcotics initiative, Plan Colombia actually constituted a military implementation of neoliberalism in Colombia. US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson had made this apparent during a visit to the Colombian port city of Cartagena in 1999 when he declared, ‘The United States and its allies will invest millions of dollars in two areas of the Colombian economy, in the areas of mining and energy, and to secure these investments we are tripling military aid to Colombia’ [2].

“Plan Colombia actually constituted a military implementation of neoliberalism in Colombia.”Following the collapse of the peace process, hardliner Alvaro Uribe assumed the presidency in August 2002 and sought to establish the necessary security in FARC-controlled regions for the foreign investment referred to by Richardson. Uribe refused to engage in peace talks with the FARC unless the guerrilla group first released all of its captives and unilaterally ceased all military actions. President Santos has continued with that stance as well as with the implementation of market policies and Plan Colombia, which has successfully established security for foreign investors, particularly in the oil and mining sectors.

Under the security and economic policies implemented by the Uribe and Santos governments, Colombia has become a neoliberal poster child. But most Colombians have not benefitted from the economic growth achieved under neoliberalism. When Uribe assumed office in 2002, Colombia ranked 68th—one place above neighbouring Venezuela—in the UN’s Human Development Index, which measures a country’s quality of life based on life expectancy, access to education and the average citizen’s purchasing power [3]. But by 2009, Colombia had slipped to 77th on the Index while Venezuela had risen to 58th under President Hugo Chávez’s distinctly anti-neoliberal agenda [4]. Furthermore, during the same period, many of the region’s left-leaning governments achieved significant decreases in inequality while Colombia experienced a widening in the gap between the rich and poor [5].

Meanwhile, an increasingly aggressive Colombian military, which has benefitted from more than $7 billion in US aid and training over the past decade, has put the FARC on the defensive. The FARC’s influence in regions where it expanded its presence during the 1980s and 1990s has significantly diminished in recent years. And, for the first time in more than four decades of conflict, the Colombian military has succeeded in its attempts to target members of the rebel group’s seven-member ruling secretariat. Additionally, long-time supreme commander Manuel Marulanda died of a heart attack in 2008. Following the killing of Marulanda’s successor, Alfonso Cano, in 2011, Timochenko became the commander of a guerrilla group that has been weakened militarily and forced to return to traditional hit-and-run guerrilla tactics.

Nevertheless, the FARC continues to pose a significant military threat. In fact, according to a 2010 report issued by the Bogotá-based NGO, New Rainbow Corporation (Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris), more soldiers and police were killed in each of 2009 and 2010 than at the height of the conflict in 2002 [6]. However, many on the non-violent left argue that the FARC’s continued commitment to armed struggle provides the government with a convenient justification for its repression of those sectors of society that are peacefully struggling for peace and social justice. But peace accords that led to the demobilization of the FMLN and other Central American guerrilla groups—and also the M-19 in Colombia—during the 1990s failed to address the social inequalities and injustices that lay at the root of those conflicts. Ultimately, the legacy of the Central American peace accords consists of poverty, inequality and rampant gang and criminal violence—and the widespread imposition of neoliberalism. In essence, politically-motivated violence has been replaced by criminal violence perpetrated by individuals and gangs that threatens personal security but not the neoliberal economic model.

Thousands of Colombian paramilitaries and guerrillas have demobilized in recent years in return for government benefits including money and job training. But many of these former combatants do not have jobs when their benefits expire after three years because, as one demobilized FARC guerrilla noted, ‘The doors of businesses are shut to us. They ask for my cedula [government-issued identification card] and check with the police, and when they find out that I’m a demobilized fighter they are afraid to hire me’ [7]. According to Luís Fernando Martinez, who works with the demobilization program, ‘Because they cannot find work and have difficulty adapting to urban life, many of the demobilized are turning to crime or joining emergent criminal gangs.’ [8] The fact that these criminal groups are now the country’s principal perpetrators of violence suggests that the shift in the nature of violence evidenced in Central America following the armed conflicts in that region is already occurring in Colombia [9].

“If the FARC has proven one thing over the decades, it is its ability to adapt and to survive.”Ultimately, a decade of escalated US military intervention in El Salvador during the 1980s led to a stalemate in that country’s armed conflict and the eventual demobilization of the FMLN without any significant structural changes. Similarly, a decade of US military intervention under Plan Colombia has turned the tide in the Colombian conflict. However, as has been the case in El Salvador—and in other Central American nations—any peace agreement in Colombia that does not result in significant structural changes will also fail to achieve peace with social justice.

Like most armed movements, the FARC is a complex organization. It has significant popular support in some rural regions of Colombia and very little in others. It utilizes terrorist tactics and perpetrates gross violations of human rights. It also profits from the illicit drug trade. But to simply dismiss the FARC as a criminal organization would be both disingenuous and counter-productive. While many do not agree with the FARC’s ideology, or the strategy and tactics that the guerrilla group has employed, the guerrilla group nevertheless remains an ideologically motivated organization.

Therefore, a negotiated solution to the armed conflict is unlikely to occur as long as the government insists that the only issues open for negotiation are the logistical questions related to the guerrilla group’s demobilization. Any political solution must address the root causes of the conflict, which are the country’s gross social and economic inequalities. After all, it is not only the FARC that is seeking such a social transformation, but also millions of Colombians on the non-violent left.

Ultimately, if there is little or no change in the repressive security and economic policies implemented by the Colombian government, then the FARC will remain committed to armed struggle. And if the FARC has proven one thing over the decades, it is its ability to adapt and to survive. But even if the military were to continue with its successes on the battlefield and ultimately defeat the FARC, the demobilization of the guerrillas would not end the violence in Colombia. As evidenced in Central America, ending the armed conflict without implementing far-reaching structural changes will not result in a peace with social justice. Therefore, the violence will simply continue in one form or another deep into the 21st century.

This article was previously published by the Latin American Bureau


Notes

1. Alfredo Molano, ‘The Evolution of the FARC: A Guerrilla Group’s Long History’, NACLA Report on the Americas, September/October 2000.

2. Francisco Ramírez Cuellar, The Profits of Extermination: How U.S. Corporate Power is Destroying Colombia (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2005), p. 32.

3. ‘Human Development Report 2002’, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 2002.

4. ‘Human Development Report 2009’, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 2009.

5. Adam Isacson, ‘Colombia: Don’t Call It a Model’, Washington Office on Latin America, July 14, 2010.

6. León Valencia, ‘Las cifras del conflicto en el 2010’, El Tiempo, 8 December 2010.

7. Jon, interview with author, Ibagué, Tolima, Colombia, 15 December 2010.

8. Luís Fernando Martinez, interview with author, Ibagué, Tolima, Colombia, 15 December 2010.

9. Vivian Sequera, ‘For Colombia Ex-Fighters, Few Jobs and Crime Pays’, Associated Press, 31 December 2011.

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