While UK voters have now decided on their future relationship with the EU, Colombian voters are also facing a stark choice – either peace or more conflict.
On the day of the UK referendum result, news broke that a peace deal had been secured between the government and the rebel group FARC, on the face of it a good news story for national and even hemispheric geopolitics.
The peace plan still has to be put to the Colombian electorate and, if rejected, Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, warns that conflict might once again bedevil the country. The superior court of Colombia is reviewing the proposed plebiscite arrangements at present but the intent is clear; the president wants a vote for peace in return for offering amnesties for those involved in the conflict along with a package of measures for poorer farming communities in the country.
The agreement in question has been a long time in the making. In essence, successive Colombian governments have been locked into conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Established in the mid-1960s, FARC’s rationale was rooted in an anti-imperialist and Marxist-Leninist ideology, which championed agrarian reform, decentralisation and government reform. The conflict between it and the Colombian state was complicated further by the involvement of the United States, which considered FARC to be a terrorist organisation. Since that point in the 1990s, the US has invested heavily in the country leading to further accusations by FARC that Colombia was being treated as a neo-colonial stooge of its powerful northern neighbour. When you factor in the ‘war on drugs’ rhetoric of both Colombian and US governments over the decades, it is fair to conclude that the country, and in particular rural and agrarian communities, have paid a heavy price. Since the conflict started, around 220,000 people are estimated to have lost their lives and up to six million have been internally displaced.
“A key element in proceedings was the recent US-Cuban rapprochement signified by a presidential visit and the reopening of the US Embassy in Havana”
In 2012, peace talks were launched in Havana and both Cuba and Norway have been helping to mediate between the two parties. Over the last three years, a succession of agreements regarding agrarian reform, transitional justice, amnesty for rebels and the treatment of drug-related activities have been reached.
The terms and conditions regarding the new cease-fire proved more problematic with arguments about how to disarm the FARC rebels and ensure that the Colombian authorities could assert sovereign authority in rebel-held areas without provoking conflict again.
There are also outstanding issues regarding possible US extradition proceedings against those judged to be integral to the drugs-based economy of Colombia. This is not a hollow issue because one FARC commander, Ricardo Palmera, was extradited to the US to serve a long prison sentence in 2004. It is also a controversial issue given secret US military and intelligence assistance provided to Colombia during the height of the conflict. Some have suggested that a compromise might be to allow a prisoner like Palmera to serve the remainder of his sentence in a third-party country like Norway.
What is notable is that the US has been able to not only be party to this peace agreement process, but that President Obama was able to appoint a special envoy (Bernard Aronson) who travelled to Cuba to meet those involved in the negotiations. In other words, a key element in proceedings was the recent US-Cuban rapprochement signified by a presidential visit and the reopening of the US Embassy in Havana.
So in that sense the timing of events is precipitous and the FARC-US relationship matters because of past entanglements, where accusations of human rights abuses and murderous violence predominated affairs. While FARC remains mistrustful of the US, there is also growing recognition within the US that the drug eradication strategies that informed the ‘war on drugs’ in places like Colombia have not helped local communities.
“Colombians are angry with the government for neglecting their civil and economic rights and interests and offering up too many concessions to FARC”
Recent history should make one guardedly optimistic about the current peace negotiations as previous attempts to bring the conflict to a close have failed. Improved relations between the US and Cuba have helped this time around, but even recently there have been leaked stories that the US might not support the current ‘Plan Colombia’ process if the Colombian government makes good on its promise to allow Swiss-patented cancer drugs to be made locally. Business and political figures in the US are concerned about the precedent this might cause regarding global drug pricing.
It is also important to recall that other members of Colombia’s 48 million-strong population, namely indigenous ethnic communities and Afro-Colombians, demand their own form of recognition when it comes to negotiation over long-term agrarian reform and crop-substitution policies. Buying and selling coca leaves is integral to peasant economies and encouraging coffee and fruit production along with de-mining programmes will need widespread popular support.
This is not going to be straightforward when many Colombians are mired in poverty, struggling to secure land rights. As recent protests demonstrated, they are angry with the government for neglecting their civil and economic rights and interests and offering up too many concessions to FARC.
This was published in the August 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.