FARC, Colombian government to kick off talks in Oslo tomorrow (maybe)

Colombian government negotiators and representatives of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) are making their way to Norway today in advance of peace talks set to commence tomorrow (although delays may prevent some FARC members from arriving until later in the week).  

Although it’s probably too optimistic to predict that the Oslo talks will result in a definitive peace after 50 years of conflict, there are nonetheless signs for optimism — in many ways, think of the Oslo talks as the opening salvo for bringing the FARC issue back into the political sphere, rather than just the military sphere.

The peace talks are a somewhat audacious move for Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos, who has increasingly emphasized a political solution to decades of fighting between FARC and Colombian police and military forces — Santos recognized last year that Colombia was engaged in an ‘armed conflict,’ and has indicated support for victim restitution and land reform legislation.  Santos previously served as the national defense minister from 2006 to 2009 in the administration of Álvaro Uribe, and he was a key player in the Uribe administration, which is widely credited with a military operation that reduced drug production throughout Colombia and all but defeated FARC over the past decade.

So FARC, which had long ago resorted to financing its operations in part through the drug trade, is entering the negotiations from a greatly weakened position.

There’s no disputing that Colombia has experienced a renaissance since the truly bad days of the 1990s — it’s marked GDP growth in every year since 1999 — even in 2009, Colombia’s economy grew by 1.65%, and last year growth hit nearly 6%.  As tourism and foreign development have returned to Colombia and as drug violence has receded, more Colombians are moving out of poverty, and both Uribe and Santos can take credit for creating a more secure environment for economic growth.  In agreeing to the talks, Santos is hoping that he can work with FARC to make those gains permanent.

But with Uribe sniping in the background about the peace talks, and with Uribe ally and former finance minister Óscar Zuluaga already running for president against Santos in 2014 (quite possibly with Uribe’s endorsement), Santos personally will have much at stake in moving toward progress through the Oslo talks.  Uribe has taken a hard line against his one-time protegé, criticizing Santos for cozier relations with Colombia’s neighbor Venezuela and for engaging FARC in peace talks.  Uribe was much more at odds with the leftist politics of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and Cuba’s Fidel Castro than Santos has been (notably, both of them — and especially Castro — worked behind the scenes to bring about the negotiations, which initiated in Havana and will likely continue in Havana after Oslo).

Attacks from Uribe and his hawkish allies are likely to increase once talks get underway.  Although José R. Cardenás writes in Foreign Policy that the talks aren’t without risk for Colombia, and that the “only thing the FARC should be negotiating is the terms of their surrender to the Colombian state and some measure of accountability for the mayhem they have caused over the past decades,” Sergio Fajardo, the governor of Antioquia, tells Americas Quarterly that the payoffs could be huge:

 I believe that giving ourselves the opportunity to live in peace is an obligation we have in Colombia. My children were born amid violence. We deserve peace and it is the responsibility of our government to find it. If we achieve peace with the FARC it will be a great relief. We still have many problems, but it would be a great step forward. There are mistakes we can’t make again. We cannot clear an area of the country without a serious and solid agreement. I believe the time to negotiate is when your opponent has put down its weapons.

The talks will focus on five key areas:

  • agricultural development and agrarian reform — how to create social programs to boost the education, health and welfare of rural Colombians, many of whom are former coca farmers and, potentially, how to break up the large latifundios to redistribute land to rural peasants;
  • political participation — how to normalize Colombian politics and secure democratic norms to prevent the future radicalization or militarization of Colombian politics;
  • ending the conflict — how to enact mechanics of a ceasefire, how to integrate FARC guerrillas back into mainstream society and how to deal with immunity and/or other security guaranties;
  • drug trade — how to maintain Colombian success in the reduction of drug trafficking, and how to enact public health and other programs for prevention; and
  • conciliation — FARC is seeking a truth commission and compensation for the victims of human rights abuses.

That’s a large agenda, though in many ways the five points are mutually reinforcing: land reform and development and better social programs will dissuade farmers from resorting to coca production, and a disarmament and ceasefire will lead to further integration of FARC into the Colombian political mainstream, giving onetime FARC leaders a stake in Colombia’s continued success. Or so a successful plan would go.

Neither Santos nor the reputed leader of FARC, Simón Trinidad, will participate directly in the Oslo talks.  But keep an eye on Rodrigo Granda, FARC’s ‘foreign minister,’ who’s been in Havana laying much of the groundwork for the negotiations with Colombia’s government, and who’s under no illusions about the difficulty ahead:

We mustn’t get our hopes up too high. We will get to know each other; we are two enemies who in many cases will be seeing each other face to face for the first time. We’ll have to start out by building trust. We will undoubtedly clarify some questions about how the talks will work – rules, places, schedules, but nothing of great significance.

In seeking a political solution to the standoff, it’s important to remember the genesis of the fight was political.

FARC was created in the 1960s, so it goes well beyond the Cali and Medellín cartel showdowns of the 1990s and the days of Pedro Escobar.  In many ways, the conflict is the 21st century manifestation of the 19th century struggle between Liberals and Conservatives that Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez wrote about in One Hundred Days of Solitude, including several civil wars in the 1860s, 1870s and the Thousand Days War from 1899 to 1902 that initiated a period of Conservative hegemony in Colombia.

More recently, as the immediate prologue to the formation of FARC, the assassination of popular Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 set off a decade of bipartisan violence throughout the country — the period is still known simply as La Violencia.

In 1964, Colombian army forces overran the ‘Marquetalia Republic,’ an area of rural Colombia that had been controlled by Communist peasant guerrillas in the aftermath of La Violencia.  After that attack, FARC formed to avenge those military operations.  In the aftermath of the 1970 election, a similar guerrilla movement, the 19th of April Movement (M-19), formed and, throughout the 1970s, FARC and M-19 increasingly waged guerrilla havoc on Colombia — in 1980, M-19 took over the Dominican embassy and held 16 ambassadors hostage for 61 days, and in 1985, it attacked the Palace of Justice, leaving 100 people dead, including the president of the Supreme Court.

While the Colombian government successfully negotiated a peace with M-19 in the late 1980s, FARC continued and ultimately entwined with the drug traffickers that so destabilized Colombia in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Under Uribe (who took office in 2002) and Santos, Colombia has retreated from the mayhem of murder and kidnappings that made it the world’s worst narco-state in the 1990s.  Uribe enthusiastically partnered with the United States through the ‘Plan Colombia’ that provided military and security aid to reduce coca production in Colombia.  The program has indeed reduced drug production and political violence, but amid heavy criticism of human rights abuses by the Colombian military, payoffs to right-wing paramilitary death squads, a controversial fumigation program that’s eradicated legal crops as well as coca (and in any event targets coca farmers, the poorest element in the drug production trade) and charges that the efforts have just pushed the drug trade elsewhere — to Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Mexico.

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