Colombia breathed an enormous sigh of relief on June 23, when the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the rebel group,ended a civil war that has lasted for 50 years. “May this be the last day of the war,” said FARC’s commander Timochenko. Tears filled the eyes of the FARC leader, who has been in the forests of Colombia for the past 30 years.
Standing in Havana, Cuba, with Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and Cuban President Raul Castro, Mr. Timochenko spoke of the “dead, the blood, the devastation and the horror” that wracked Colombia. Over a quarter of a million people died during the course of what seemed like an unending war. “War became part of our daily lives,” said President Santos. “We no longer remember a time when there was no war.”
Plaza Bolivar in Bogotá became one of many places where crowds gathered to gaze at large television sets. They watched as Mr. Santos, in his second term, met Mr. Timochenko for the first time. All the participants in the signing ceremony wore white Cuban guayabera shirts, a tribute to Cuba, which has played a significant role in the three-year peace negotiations. Delegations camped out in Cuba, working out thorny questions of amnesty and reintegration of fighters. Matters had been made more complex by the role of the U.S., which had played a significant role in backing the government against the FARC. Exhaustion of all sides has been key to the success of the negotiation. The relief from everyone suggests that no one wants this conflict to continue. “War has been tough,” FARC leader Victoria Sandino told me. “It is us, the guerrilla fighters, who know about war. We are the first ones to be happy that it is over now.”
Absence of liberalism
Liberalism could not find its footing in Colombia. The old aristocratic elite squashed any attempt to create genuinely democratic institutions. The most deadly period in Colombia is known simply as La Violencia, when over 200,000 people were killed between 1948 and 1958. It was this viciousness that forced the Colombian Left to seek shelter in the forests. From the jungles of Colombia, the FARC and its various allies at their height controlled about half of the countryside.
Little good came of the war. It did not soften the harshness of Colombia’s elite, who took refuge behind support from the U.S. and behind right-wing paramilitaries that used brutal force to undercut the FARC. Nor did the war bring any concessions from the elite toward the great suffering of impoverished Colombians. As agriculture suffered, the drug economy blossomed. It provided the state with wealth and allowed the elite – assisted by the U.S. to intensify repression in the name of the War on Drugs.
By the 1990s, policy-making in Colombia had been handed over to the U.S. and to the paramilitaries. Under the government of Álvaro Uribe, Colombia tried to link its internal civil war with the War on Terror. ‘Plan Colombia’ allowed Colombia access to billions of dollars in U.S. aid and U.S. military technologies. Mr. Uribe’s close ties to the paramilitaries and narco-gangsters afforded no space for even a pretence of peace talks. The catastrophic failures of his attempt to eradicate the FARC led, in many ways, to the peace initiative of his successor, and former Defence Minister, Mr. Santos.
In the 1980s, 20 years after the war began, the FARC accepted a ceasefire. Left currents welcomed the FARC into the political process with the foundation in 1985 of the Patriotic Union (UP). An alternative to the Conservatives and the Liberals, the UP had a mandate from its membership to broaden the confines of Colombian democracy. Results in the general elections of 1986 did not meet expectations, yet the UP did enter parliament. The UP’s candidate Jaime Pardo won almost 5 per cent of the national vote in the presidential elections. It was a good beginning.
Pardo was assassinated in 1987. He was one of 2,500 UP leaders and cadre who fell before the guns of the paramilitaries, drug gangs and the security forces. The aristocratic elite and the U.S. simply did not want the Left to grow in Colombia. Few alternatives remained. FARC returned — “reluctantly”, said its leader Jacobo Arenas — to the armed struggle.
Why is the ceasefire in 2016 different from the one in 1984? Largely, says historian Teo Ballve, because of the “drastically different international context”. The Cold War is over, the War on Drugs has failed, and the politics of Latin America is far more fluid and complex today. Colombia’s aristocratic elite has been isolated with the emergence of the Left across Latin America. Despite the “post-modern coup” in Brazil and the “old fashioned coup” in Honduras, the Left is now established as an element of Latin American politics. The governments of Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela “are keeping an eye on us”, FARC spokesperson Tanja Nijmeijer told me.
Human rights groups have suggested that the bulk of the brutal violations have come from paramilitary forces and state security forces. The onus is going to be on these groups to stop the violence. FARC’s Nijmeijer says that her comrades remain uncertain about whether the guarantees on the peace treaty will hold. “To have promises and words on paper is not the same as to see the agreements implemented,” she notes. The new deal provides a broad amnesty to all fighters except those who committed “crimes against humanity, serious war crimes”. These include extrajudicial executions and sexual abuse. Special courts will be created with Colombian and foreign judges to try these serious crimes. Whether these courts will be able to defang the paramilitaries and the narco-gangsters at the same pace as they go after the FARC fighters is to be seen. The test of the peace treaty will be here. FARC’s leadership sees this agreement as a vindication of its politics. “The state,” Ms. Nijmeijer notes, “hasn’t changed its anti-democratic character”. But, she said, the elites are now aware that Colombia needs a “national project, not just a country that offers a cheap labour force and natural resources”. Development is necessary to prevent Colombia from its sure descent into being a failed state. The peace treaty is a step towards the creation of a new Colombia.
Vijay Prashad teaches International Studies at Trinity College.