Wednesday, 23 October 2013

COLOMBIA: The Peace's Talk in Havana

The never-ending negotiations to pacify Colombia’s 50-year-old guerrilla war have bogged down, and both the government and the insurgents have turned to more bellicose actions to get the upper hand in the peace talks. But neither side wants to pay the political price for breaking off the negotiations on which many Colombians have placed their hopes for a settlement that would end the horrors of a conflict that has killed 220,000 people, many of them unarmed civilians.

The negotiations, being held in Havana under international sponsorship led by Norway, resumed this week, but 16 rounds of talks during nearly a year have produced agreement on only one item, rural development, on the six-point agenda. This new round has been preceded by truculent exchanges between President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, who deeply wants a settlement, and the prominent leaders of the FARC guerrilla insurgency involved in the negotiations.

There is no agreement because the FARC refuse to provide substantive commitments on demobilizing their estimated 8,000 fighters, giving up their arms, and converting their rural insurgency into a legal political party, as the government proposes. The main sticking point is that the guerrillas refuse to accept a “transitional” justice arrangement in which most of the leaders would be given lenient judicial treatment for atrocities, kidnappings for ransom, enrollment of child soldiers, and other crimes.

Given the impasse in Havana, the peace process has been overtaken by bare-knuckle action back in Colombian. After receiving an insulting public message from Timoleón Jiménez, the FARC’s top military commander, known as Timochenko, Santos called a meeting of Colombia’s military commanders and, flanked by the top brass at an airbase, announced that a new combined force command of 50,000 soldiers and airmen was being created to combat the FARC in southern Colombia’s Cauca and Putumayo valleys, where the guerrillas have strongholds.

Addressing Timochenko, Santos said, “Don’t think you can play games with the government.” The FARC, who still have far-flung armed insurgents in a score of “fronts” in the interior of Colombia, replied by stepping up sabotage of electric power lines and oil pipelines, bombing of isolated military and police outposts, and new kidnappings. These actions pose no security threat to the government but they have an economic cost a “peace” settlement would supposedly reduce.

One of the stumbling blocks has been the rejection by the FARC of a proposal by Santos to submit any agreement reached in Havana to a national referendum in which Colombia’s 15 million voters will approve or reject the peace deal. The lower house of the Colombian Congress gave an overwhelming vote of approval to the referendum procedure last week and the Senate is sure to follow, as well as the Constitutional Court. But unless an agreement is reached in Havana very soon, the referendum will be meaningless because there will be nothing to approve or reject.

Colombia’s electoral calendar is putting pressure on both Santos and the FARC negotiators in Havana. Santos has until mid-November to decide if he will run for reelection next year. It is in his political interests, as a candidate, that a peace agreement be in place before the elections next May. The FARC may also see advantage in the reelection of Santos over conservative political forces identified with former President Álvaro Uribe, a critic of Santos for being too “soft” in dealing with the criminal aspects of the guerrilla movement, which kidnapped and later assassinated Uribe’s father.

The Colombian peace negotiations are being followed closely in Latin America because the conflict is the last of the great insurgencies that swept through Latin America in the 1970s. Revolutionary movements inspired by the success of Fidel Castro’s military insurgency in Cuba tried unsuccessfully to take power by force of arms and popular mobilization, often with Cuban backing.

When the late President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela launched his Bolivarian movement of 21st-century socialism, with strong ideological and material coordination with Cuba, the FARC guerrillas were seen as potential winner who would overthrow Colombia’s democratically elected government.

In this Bolivarian strategy, FARC leaders corresponded by e-mail with Venezuelan authorities and FARC combatants received sanctuary in Venezuela, which has a long border with Colombia. This support for armed insurgency combined revolutionary aims with profit from narcotics through shared production and marketing of drugs, a major source of income for the FARC. The Colombian security forces claim to have confiscated 180 tons of cocaine in raids on the group’s strongholds.

One of the unresolved points on the peace agenda is a commitment by FARC to give up operations that organize and exploit peasants to produce the coca leaves and marijuana that are the basis of the drug trade. Instead, the FARC has been stirring up public protests by peasants in rural areas against government programs to eradicate drug crops by fumigation and support for alternative crops.

There has been no sign in the talks that the FARC will agree to curtail drug production, which is the main source of their funds. Instead FARC has demanded that the government agree to establish large peasant land reserves where the Colombian security forces would be banned, a proposal government negotiators rejected. The talks in Havana provide the FARC with a propaganda platform from which they repeatedly launch messages through the Colombian media that have political repercussions on the home front.

Those messages, which range from denunciation of Colombia’s system of free markets and private enterprise to calls for a drastic reduction of Colombia’s armed forces, are not on the agenda for the peace talks. Without some shift in the new round of talks that began this week, the Havana negotiations will become irrelevant to the political concerns that will increasingly focus on the elections next year (congressional in March and presidential in May).

In the meantime, the future of peace in Colombia will depend on what happens on the battlefield, where the Colombian armed forces claim the number of FARC deserters seeking to come back to legal livelihood has topped 8,000, reducing the FARC fighting force by half in the last four years.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP--Colombia, FARC rebels-photo