The talks in Havana between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a guerrilla militant “terrorist” group, have already had a significant impact on an important region in the global economy due to a loosening of threats against multinational companies, especially in the retail and natural resources sectors. The diplomatic efforts to end the 50+ year old conflict are also a promising sign in that the government and the FARC were engaged in more violent conflict just a few short years ago.
Getting to this point has taken decades. Founded in the mid-60s following the polarizing bloodshed of “La Violencia” (see link), the FARC’s mission was to overthrow the state, espousing a Marxist philosophy. Using drug trafficking as a fundraising vehicle throughout Colombia’s infamous period of drug production, the FARC engaged a new enemy in the 1990s: right-wing paramilitary groups. When many members and allies of these groups came to power in Bogota in the decade that followed, a campaign of military action ensued. The successes of increased military action against the guerrillas under the previous administration of President Alvaro Uribe (plus strong US support in the form of the Plan Colombia initiative) paved the way for realistic peace negotiations. For the FARC, four events between 2008 and 2011 were especially devastating: the internationally-reported military rescue of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and the individual assassinations of 3 FARC commanders (“Tirofijo,” the group’s founder, Mono Jojoy, and Alfonso Cano).
Given the traditional close ties between Colombia and Washington, it is striking that these peace talks (held in Cuba, an American foe) with a recognized “terrorist” organization have held such weight so far. This is especially notable given some of the terms and conditions that the two sides are working to address and resolve:
- Political Representation
To me, this is one of the more astounding developments in the peace process. FARC leaders are attempting to enter Colombian politics and represent the very government in Bogota their organization was essentially founded to overthrow.
The lack of outrage over such a proposal suggests that Colombians are truly (and understandably) tired of extremely high levels of violence in their country over the past generation. At the same time, economic growth potential for Colombia, as well as much of Latin America, also lead me to believe that the debate has shifted emphasis away from political power towards equitable economic distribution and opportunity.
That said, for as much as the FARC are well-known, well-organized, and well-established as a socialist-leaning political force in Colombia, it is doubtful that it would do well in elections as a political party. Recent estimates indicate that it would have an electoral base of only 18,000 Colombians in a country of 47.7 million.
- Immunity for FARC Leaders
This may well become a case where politics does indeed produce strange bedfellows. The question of immunity from prosecution (especially for war crimes) is one that has plagued Colombian politics years before the idea of peace talks with the FARC came into the forefront. As such, the precedent set by the incorporation of former paramilitaries into key political institutions favors such treatment for the FARC, even though influential forces within the Colombian government may be heavily opposed to it.
- Reparations for Conflict-generated Damages
This is an extremely difficult issue to resolve on account of the environment. The terrain in which the conflict has been fought is treacherous and remote rainforest. This Amazonian environment can be so dense that political borders and indigenous homelands can be extremely hard to determine. Add to that the length of the conflict, external actors (US, Venezuela, Ecuador), and the nature of the damages (human casualty, destroyed homes/crops, persecution/coercion, etc.) and the chance of evaluating land claims with a modicum of accuracy and objectivity become more remote. With land ownership a central issue throughout the conflict (as addressed in the compensation-oriented 2011 Victims Law), it is clear that tensions in the most affected regions will most likely persist even if there is a strong, comprehensive peace deal.
- Drug Legalization
This is a surprising point of agreement for both sides, especially given potential US opposition. For the government, it is simply trying to do what it takes to avoid a return to the horrendous 1980s, when drugs (especially cocaine) ravaged the country and created quite possibly the world’s most dangerous hotbed of violence. Contemporary measures to outlaw the drug trade globally have merely pushed drug trafficking underground, thereby increasing prices–and profits for the kingpins. For the FARC, it is a bold acceptance to give up its most significant source of funding in recent years. As it sees itself as a community-based organization, the FARC believes that the current prevailing view on drugs misses the point because it seeks to punish the end user while allowing producer and distribution networks to remain underground and flourish. It thus supports greater commitment to addressing substance abuse over regulating production, which alienates many indigenous communities in Colombia due to the traditional consumption of coca leaves.
- Potential Breakdown of Negotiations
Recent political events have presented a challenge to maintaining the often uneasy discussions between the right and left in Colombia. Given some of the recent breakthroughs, the timing of the ouster of leftist Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro by a right-wing Inspector-General who is a close ally of former (right-wing) President Alvaro Uribe could not be worse. In short, this is highly significant for a few reasons:
- The mayoralty of Bogota, Colombia’s capital, is considered a position nearly as powerful prestigious as the presidency.
- Petro is a former guerrilla with the M-19 movement, a leftist rebel group with a heyday in the 1980s. The group’s peace deal with the Colombian government in 1990 is being used as a model for the current talks in Havana. There is concern – particularly among the FARC – that the recently negotiated political participation rights for their members will not be enforced. There is now also a general credibility issue with regards to the good faith the Colombian government brings to the table.
- When he was a member of the country’s Senate, he led investigations against the Uribe regime for collaborating with paramilitary groups accused of human rights abuses. It is, therefore, not a stretch to believe that his current ouster might be a form of payback from Uribe allies.
The above analysis suggests that Colombia currently stands at a crossroads. Having overcome substantial challenges to state sovereignty (in the form of FARC territorial control) and public order (in the notoriously high murder rates in the 20th century), policymakers on both sides of the Havana talks as well as the Colombian government face serious decisions with regards to the future of their country. Examples in world history show that reconciliation and integration of former enemies into a unified society can foster stability and growth. Therefore, the proposition to grant FARC a place at the table in Bogota’s democracy- while controversial and emotional for many- could be the first step for Colombia to become a stronger society and a role model for Latin America in addressing issues of systemic, crippling violence.