Two years ago, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos was asked when peace talks between his government and the Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) that had just begun in Oslo – and were scheduled to continue in Havana – might conclude. He said he hoped it would be “months, not years”.
He regrets those words. Speaking to the Observer last week he said: “When I said in November 2012 that I hoped this would be over in months, not years, people interpreted that as if I was saying it would be finished in less than a year. Everybody has advised me not to put a timeframe on it this time, but again I would tell you exactly what I said in November 2012: I hope that this will end in months and not years – meaning that the sooner we end this the more lives we will save and the more suffering we would also save.”
Colombia has endured five decades of death and suffering since the war with the Farc started in 1964 (though its left-right political violence dates back even further, to 1948). The road to peace was never going to be easy, or speedy. And yet, two years on, both sides are increasingly confident that a final agreement could be signed in 2015.
If that happens it will lay to rest one of the longest periods of violence in any country in the 20th and 21st centuries. In a report published last year, the country’s National Centre of Historical Memory estimated that the violence had claimed at least 220,000 lives. But even that death tally fails to tell the story of how Colombia, as a country, endured its own near-death experience. There was a period in the mid-to-late 1990s when the violence – which by then had drawn in not only the Farc, agents of the Colombian armed forces, rightwing paramilitaries, narco crime gangs and two more leftwing rebel groups – looked like it would render the country a failed state. The essential institutions of the state – the police, the judiciary and the politicians – were so corrupted by drugs money and enfeebled by violence that Colombia was close to collapse. Although this peace process is designed to close the chapter on Farc- related violence, the major spark in killing came, as the report makes clear, when far-right militias backed by a shadowy mix of large ranchers, politicians and drug syndicates emerged in the 1980s to counter the Farc and other leftist rebels.
Santos’s tour of European capitals last week was a bid to lay the ground, financially and politically, for a post-peace Colombia. He told the Observer: “As we are about to take the most difficult decisions in this process – we still have two items on the agenda to agree on, and they are the most difficult – those are the items that need the support of the international community to be able to reach a successful solution.”
The peace talks have already reached agreements on land reform, the political future of the Farc, and a way to tackle the trade in illegal drugs – the latter having partly funded the Farc over three decades. The remaining issues on which both sides seek agreement are the difficulties of reparations for war victims and disarmament of the Farc. How best to balance peace, reconciliation and an understandable thirst for justice (if not retribution) remains the most difficult problem to resolve. Santos says: “Where do you draw the line between peace and justice? We need to take a decision that will allow us to have enough justice but at the same time allow us to reach peace – where you draw the line is the most difficult aspect of all the negotiations, and that’s where we need a lot of political support in the international community for that agreement to be a legitimate agreement.”
Giving victims justice is made more complicated because Colombia is the first country since the 2002 Statute of Rome to try ending a conflict of this sort. The Rome treaty established the international criminal court, which has worldwide jurisdiction over certain war crimes and crimes against humanity. This could mean that any agreement reached at the peace talks would be overruled by the ICC.
Santos recognises the dangers: “That’s why we need the political support to take the correct decision that will be flexible enough to cover the expectations of the international community, the expectations of Colombian people, the expectations of our constitution – and the expectations of the guerrillas that would like to lay down their arms in exchange for something.”
It is remarkable that the talks have achieved as much as they have. To have agreed on the Farc’s future political participation is itself a small miracle, given what happened the last time a peace process created the space for former leftwing guerrillas to enter politics. That was in 1985 when the Farc and the Communist party – after negotiations with the then president – established the Patriotic Union (PU) party as a means of formally entering politics.
What happened next remains one of the most discreditable periods of recent Colombian history. For seven years from 1985, rightwing paramilitaries, drug cartels and agents of the state orchestrated a systematic campaign to murder PU’s supporters and activists. More than 3,000 were killed, including two presidential candidates, senior political figures and thousands of local activists. Some have likened it to a kind of political extermination. With that in mind, what guarantees are there that the Farc can lay down its arms and embark on a political future without facing the violence that killed off the PU?
Santos believes that the assurances in place – and agreed to by the Farc – suggest a different outcome. “Colombia is a different country today than in the 1980s: the drug cultures were all-powerful, they colluded with the paramilitaries which were also all-powerful, we were on the verge of being declared a failed state, and our security forces were very weak. In today’s Colombia this would not happen – we have [some of] the best armed forces in our history, loyal to our democratic institutions, and supporting the peace process.”
Yet powerful forces, led by ex-president Álvaro Uribe, remain staunchly opposed to a peace deal. It was the Uribe presidency that helped to disarm the paramilitaries, though in the past he has been dogged by alleged connections to militias (most recently by a Colombian senator two months ago) and, more wildly, to the Medellín drug cartel. A 1991 dispatch from the US Defence Intelligence Agency (made public in 2004) alleged that Uribe was “dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín cartel” – although the US state department claimed that the report had no credibility. Last year Uribe set up a new political party to oppose the peace deal.
Yet the talks are still on track, and perhaps more significant than a deal to secure the Farc’s future in the political process is the land reform agreement that both sides have signed. Given that the Farc’s original raison d’etre was to represent the rural poor against a wealthy land-owning elite (before succumbing to such lesser goals as extortion, kidnapping, narco deals and the use of minors in their “army”), the agreement to establish a “land bank” which distributes farms to farmers and the rural poor is key in addressing one of Colombia’s other historical injustices. Santos recognises the importance of land in the history of violence in his country. “For me, it is crucial to continue to achieve this objective because this is part of the overall objectives in the peace process. We are creating what we call a bank of land to give people land.”
Prospects for peace have never looked better but the signing of any deal will be only the first tentative step on what will remain a perilous journey. Santos says: “I am doing everything possible to teach people how to reconcile, and one thing I have discovered is that the victims are more ready to pardon and reconcile than the average citizen. If the victims are ready to pardon and to forgive, then that is a very strong basis for peace to be sustainable in the long run.”
One of those victims who agreed to go to the Havana talks perfectly illustrates the hope, and dangers, that lie in wait for Colombia. An award-winning journalist who has investigated all sides in the Colombian conflict, Jineth Bedoya has suffered at the hands of both left and right forces. In 2000, while investigating rightwing paramilitaries, she was abducted, kidnapped and raped – a paramilitary soldier later confessed to being one of the attackers. In 2003, while investigating the Farc, she was kidnapped, later released, and more recently was the subject of death threats from the group.
That Bedoya is willing to represent victims and participate in the healing speaks volumes for the strength of the process. However, the fact that Bedoya felt the need to release a statement last Sunday saying that victims who had attended the peace talks need greater protection after receiving death threats from ex-paramilitaries and criminal drug gangs, shows how far the country still has to travel.
The peace process represents Colombia’s best hope for a future that is markedly less violent than the past 50 years. And, despite those opposed to it, the hope will be that when the final agreement is put to a national vote an overwhelming majority will elect to travel a different route to the one taken in the past.
THE DARK DECADES
1948 La Violencia The assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a popular Liberal party candidate for the presidency, who was advocating agrarian and labour reforms, sparks a civil war that lasts for 10 years. His death set off a massive 10-hour riot in Bogotá (which destroyed much of the downtown) and left many hundreds dead. La Violencia, the 10-year war between the Colombian Liberal party and the Conservative party, left 200,000 dead. Much of the violence was between peasants on either side of the struggle.
1962-64 Farc, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Peasants in self-defence groups agreed to fight the Colombian army under one central command. Two years later, Farc was officially formed.
1964 ELN Leftwing rebel group formed by university students - focuses on disrupting business infrastructure.
1972 M-19 Urban-based left-wing rebel group formed.
1985-92 Right-wing paramilitaries formed to attack Patriotic Union, a political party affiliated with Farc. In 1988 alone more than 200 political leaders from PU were killed.
2012 Farc/government peace talks formally start in Oslo before continuing in Havana.