02 September 2012

Can President Santos Bring Peace to Colombia? or, Let the Wars be of Words

This week, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that his government has begun engaging in peace talks with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolutionarias de Colombia (FARC). In a nationally televised speech on Monday, 27 August, he acknowledged that "exploratory talks" had been taking place since February in Cuba, and now, the stage is set for dialogue to be formally launched in Oslo in October that will continue in Havana. Reporting on Colombian media reports, Mercopress states:

The agenda of the dialogue will include issues such as “integral agrarian development policy”, “political participation”, “end of the conflict”, “solution to the problem of illicit drugs”, “victims” and “implementation, verification and ratification” of the agreement.
All of these issues do need to be addressed in order for the 48-year conflict to be resolved. There have been previous failed attempts. To assuage fears of a repeat of the 1999 attempt that granted the rebels safe haven, which they proceeded to use as a training ground and hiding place for their hostages, President Santos pledged that the Colombian military would continue its operations against the FARC "in every centimeter" of the country. The aim of the peace process, he said, was to end the conflict, not prolong it.

The man chooses his words wisely as he has been carefully setting the stage, reversing the course of his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, whose hard-line policies to eradicate the left-wing rebels included the clandestine assistance of brutal right-wing paramilitaries along with billions of dollars in military and police aid from the United States. Uribe's tactics were considered to be successful at the time, as several FARC leaders were killed, both rebels and their drug gang connections were pushed out of urban areas, and international investment was encouraged in this newer, brighter Colombia.

But time has shown the decapitation to have only caused the dragon to adapt, growing multiple, decentralized heads and more versatile tactics of its own. President Santos has been criticized for allowing the security situation to worsen on his watch, and Uribe has been the most vocal of the critics.

The level of Uribe's irate twittering rose to a deafening roar in May 2011, when President Santos officially changed the language used to discuss the situation Colombia was facing from a "terrorist threat" to an "armed conflict." The change, he explained, was meant to give a legal framework to compensation of victims of violence between the state and illegal forces, including both the left-wing guerillas and the right-wing paramilitaries. From Colombia Reports:
Acknowledging that several other Latin American guerrilla groups in the past were recognized and legitimized because they were fighting against dictatorships, he questioned "In Colombia have they been fighting against a dictatorship or have they abused the state of law? They have been abusing the state of law for years."
This, from the man who is so closely tied to the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) paramilitary groups in the parapolitics scandal that keeps bringing to light new information as more former AUC leaders extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges give their testimony. And now, Uribe's latest, greatest twittering activity has been to "slam" Colombian Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez Maldonado's statement in regard to the new peace dialogue:
"I am going to demand the theme of drug trafficking in clear terms because this was a grave error of ex-president Uribe, and now we have criminal groups because of it [...] the first thing to do with the FARC is determine their renunciation of the activity of drug trafficking"
Not only doth he protest too much, which only makes him look more guilty, but Uribe is so entrenched in the Colombian elite and its hatred toward the FARC, by whose hands his own father was killed during a kidnapping attempt in 1983, that he cannot look at the situation in Colombia from any other perspective. He cannot realize that in order to deal with the FARC, one must look back at their history and understand why they exist in the first place, which is because Colombia, in the 1960s, was ruled by an exclusive political power-sharing agreement, backed by the Roman Catholic Church and business leaders, who put in place a policy of Accelerated Economic Development through which they violently evicted peasant farmers, divvied up the land amongst themselves, and established government-subsidized private industrial farms and urban factories that focused on exporting products over feeding the landless poor. That didn't go over too well with the fucked-over peasants, who began organizing themselves to call for improved living conditions and basic human rights, and they put up fronts against state-sponsored violence – which, in turn, didn't go over too well with the United States, in its frenzy to nip such communistical uprisings against business and its profits that were spreading throughout the neighborhood in the bud, and so Plan Lazo was hatched:
[A] concerted country team effort should be made now to select civilian and military personnel for clandestine training in resistance operations in case they are needed later. This should be done with a view toward development of a civil and military structure for exploitation in the event the Colombian internal security system deteriorates further. This structure should be used to pressure toward reforms known to be needed, perform counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions and as necessary execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents. It should be backed by the United States.

This quote comes from a now-declassified secret supplement to a report made in 1962 – two years before any guerilla forces came into being in Colombia. Therefore, everything that happened since then can be seen as tit-for-tat responses to this escalation of militarism, to which President Santos, a business and military man, himself – having been Uribe's Minister of Defense – wants to finally put to an end.

He seems to get the importance of dialogue, having immediately mended Colombia's relations with Venezuela and then Ecuador that Uribe had brought to a crisis point, which has been a boon to regional trade. A move that certainly helped to dampen hostilities with these neighbors was President Santos quietly declining to resubmit the U.S.-Colombia Defense Agreement, signed in October 2009 by the Uribe administration, that was to allow the U.S. military access to seven facilities in Colombia for joint "counternarcotics and antiterrorism operations" over the next ten years, but which had been declared unconstitutional by the Colombian Constitutional Court because the agreement had not been submitted to Congress.

Another example of his diplomatic aplomb was his convincing the U.S. Congress to pass the long-delayed U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement in October 2011, held up over concerns about the exploitation of workers and violence toward labor rights activists and unionists. The real benefits of CFTA to the people of Colombia is, of course, a matter of debate, but it did bring about an action plan, overseen by Colombian Labor Minister Rafael Pardo and under review by the U.S. Office for Foreign Trade. The going is slow, as old and abusive ways die hard; but those concerned about labor rights in Colombia should pay close attention to what happens with the current strike at Glencore's La Jagua coalmine, as the strike having been declared legal was a shift in the tides of the past. If the strike continues for over 60 days, the labor ministry will have to step in, which will hopefully give this body the opportunity to prove that changes are occurring at a crucial moment when the Colombian government is in dialogue with leftist groups who have been fighting for almost 50 years for this very cause.

As for business interests in Colombia, making them safe from rebel attacks would seem like a no-brainer, and the Bloomberg News headline, Ecopetrol Cuts 2012 Output Target On Rebel Attacks, underlines the importance of the government's ability to get a handle on the violence in Colombia from a purely business point of view. If the costs of hiring security, replacing damaged equipment, eating losses due to closures, and paying bribes for hostages were to be removed from their equations, there would be more funds available for treating workers ethically, not to mention (but I will) the high value of lowered risk and uncertainty. As pointed out by this astute analysis at Just the Facts,
The rise in prices of commodities like oil and minerals has led President Santos to refer to extractive industries as a “locomotive of the economy.” However, many potential natural resource reserves are in remote, historically neglected areas under guerrilla control. The Santos government may be calculating that a negotiation to demobilize the FARC offers the quickest path to access these suddenly valuable areas.
President Santos has the credibility to be taken seriously by the FARC – and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or National Liberation Army (ELN), who have decided to join in the dialogue, as well. In May 2011, he stepped away from the language of "terrorism," conceding (at least implicitly) that it is not a useful term when the state has also engaged in its share of terrorism (i.e. covert operations in conjunction with the U.S., paramilitary connections, extrajudicial executions of civilians by Colombian military, weak judiciary that allows for impunity...). In January 2012, the Victims and Land Restitution Law came into effect, explicitly acknowledging that the state has committed wrongs by allowing victims of violence committed by guerillas, paramilitaries, or state officials to claim financial compensation as well as allowing land that was obtained by any kind of force or intimidation to be reclaimed by the previous owners.

Then, in June of this year, Congress overwhelmingly approved his proposed legislation, known as the Legal Framework for Peace, which reformed previous laws aimed at demobilizing the AUC. This new framework has been harshly criticized by Uribe and his "law-and-order" cheerleaders as well as by some human rights groups who worry that it sets a precedent for impunity. However, the legislation only softens sentencing for those members of the FARC and the ELN, specifically, who confess their crimes, and then, only provided that a peace agreement calling for the guerillas to lay down their arms has been achieved.

The talks will have Norway and Cuba as "guarantors," with Venezuela and Chile as "accompanists." And the whole idea, to remind the author of that last linked-to article on the Americas Quarterly Blog, is to establish trust. I am rather distraught that someone who makes the following assessment would be taken seriously by anyone truly interested in solving social problems anywhere in the world:
Let us suppose the best possible scenario: both the FARC and the ELN sign a peace agreement and move on into full demobilization of their armed structures. The root causes of violence would still be alive in most of Colombia. And such root causes are not, as it could be naively thought, poverty or inequality. The actual reason why Colombia is such a violent country, and has been so for two centuries, is the fact that most of the Colombian territory resembles an open frontier where the authority of the state is nonexistent, or is only existent in nominal terms. 
What Andres Mejia Vergnaud leaves out of his equation is the part where it has been state sponsored poverty and inequality, and government authority without any kind of accountability or semblance of justice is also at play in Colombia's story.

This feature in the Los Angeles Times culture pages offers a far more insightful take on the Colombian story, wherein Colombian authors Juan Gabriel Vasquez and Hector Abad Faciolince are asked about Colombia's violence and 'literature of conflict.' Here is what I wrote about the article in June 2011:
As Colombians, the two authors have both written novels that can do no other than deal with the violence and loss that has plagued their country’s society for so long. They were both asked the question, “Why is Colombia so violent?”

Vasquez paraphrases another Colombian author, Gabriel García Márquez, as having made the point that “drug trafficking has made prosper the idea that the biggest obstacle to happiness in Colombia is obeying the law,” and therein lies the rub. A government that is perceived to be corrupt or incompetent leads to political cynicism, which can grow through lawlessness into the brutal dynamics of illicit economies, where the weak and the poor are used and abused, having more to gain by joining with the criminals than not.

Inequality and distrust – That is the answer that Juan Gabriel Vasquez gives to the question posed, while Hector Abad Faciolince points to weak institutions and general social intolerance. They are all interwoven, as are their resolutions.

As the recent experiences of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil in their struggles to heal their societies in the long aftermath of brutal dictatorships versus the rebel fighters who opposed them show, first, steps must be taken to end the violent situation, and then the discussion can go forward in balancing justice with the invaluable dividends of peace.

If President Juan Manuel Santos can broker lasting peace in Colombia at this time, it will stand as an example of what can be done for other conflict zones, particularly Syria, where the issues of trust in the country's Alawite Shiite minority government are interwoven with region-wide ethnic differences and the play of power in a shifting political landscape. There is also Afghanistan, which faces many problems that are similar to those of Colombia: a weak and corrupt government facing guerilla warfare. There are rumblings of violence between Israel and Iran. And there is much, much more conflict throughout the world.

As I was pointing out in my previous article about Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, there are so often no "good guys" and "bad guys." This holds true especially in the case of war. There is only the prospect of violence or peace, separation or wholeness, chaos or calm.

[image: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, via Wikipedia]

Mercopress. Thursday, 30 August 2012

Colombia Reports. 5 May 2011

Colombia Reports. 31 August 2012

Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990

Colombia Reports. 29 August 2012

Bloomberg. 30 August 2012

Just the Facts Blog. 28 August 28 2012

Americas Quarterly Blog. 6 June 2012

Los Angeles Times. Sunday, 19 June

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