Colombia’s Bittersweet Peace Deal

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Colombia’s Bittersweet Peace Deal

After generations of warfare, Colombia finally has a negotiated model for peace, but the agreement is more a settlement between two battered parties than a moment of celebration. Still, it carries a promise of greater social equity and some accountability.

(Photo: Juan Carlos Pachón/cc/flickr)

The Colombian government and the continent’s mightiest and longest-surviving guerrilla army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are set to finalize a bittersweet peace agreement next spring with no victors, millions of victims, and just enough justice to basically turn a page on decades of unrelenting bloodletting.

The point of no return, barring unexpected sabotage, was the landmark Sept. 23 announcement that a transitional legal framework had been drafted to deal with all war criminals. President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, a.k.a. Timochenko, shook hands and Cuban President Raúl Castro, the middleman, joined the three-way clutch. They set a six-month deadline to sign the peace treaty, followed by a two-month disarming and demobilization process.

Although details on the legal deal have not been fully divulged, mainstream press outlets – in an attempt to call a winner – suggested the FARC had capitulated. But the truth is that agreement was the lowest common denominator to break a stalemate, or to paraphrase Santos, it’s the maximum amount of justice that was possible to achieve peace.

The FARC had said they would not accept being punished, which was a nonstarter, not because the government or the majority of Colombians says so, but because international law does. Blanket amnesties no longer offer the cover against crimes against humanity of last century’s peace deals and the guerrilla movement ultimately realized that any agreement not only had to be brokered with the government, but accepted by the majority of the population and respected by international tribunals.

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Furthermore, justice or accountability will be served in small portions, but to all sides, which is a prerequisite to lasting peace after nearly 70 years at war. The FARC surely, but also state security forces, elites, politicians, financers and others “directly or indirectly” involved in the conflict will have to own up to their abuses.

It was a FARC demand to move forward, but also the government’s way of shielding elites.

A Slap on the Wrist

As it is, the basic outline foresees no jail time for those who fully confess to their crimes within a given timeframe. Most rank-and-file criminals will be amnestied, and a special tribunal, including minority foreign judges, will prosecute the leaders responsible for “the most serious and representative” crimes. They will have to compensate their victims and do community work “with effective restriction of liberty,” but no prison, which sounds like house arrest at best. Those who don’t confess will be prosecuted by regular tribunals and face up to 20 year in jail.

The Obama administration, which supported Santos’s peace process, has said it will respect one of the provisions of the deal with the FARC which would shield them from extradition. Of course, the U.S. has – for decades – been helping Colombia weaken the 10,000-15,000 strong FARC, which contributed to FARC’s decision to negotiate what had become an unwinnable war. FARC also recognized that it had lost significant popular support, even while retaining military might.

The CIA, DEA, NSA, and the Pentagon have all been operating since the 1980s, covertly at first, but overtly since 2000 through the $9 billion Plan Colombia military aid package, which only broadened previous bilateral cooperation deals. (The U.S. involvement over those three-plus decades also means Washington does not have clean hands regarding the government’s abuses.)

The angriest opposition to the transitional framework deal, as usual, came from former President Alvaro Uribe, who is mobilizing his followers against the peace process. It’s ironic though that the extreme-right populist leader might also benefit from it.

Uribe will at some point have to come clean about his role in the conflict (as should the U.S.). For Uribe that day may come soon. Colombia’s attorney general has asked the Supreme Court to investigate him for ties to paramilitary groups in relation to a massacre in 1997. Uribe has immunity from prosecution during his two-term presidency, but not before then.

If indeed Uribe is prosecuted, he too would be covered under transitional justice, as much as hundreds, if not thousands of military officers, rich landowners, businessmen, and former and acting politicians.

It turns out that both FARC leaders, also responsible for human rights violations, and Uribe and other paramilitary supporters will get little more than a slap on the wrist, but there is little alternative when the endgame is peace.

According to a 2013 independent report on the conflict, 220,000 people were killed, 25,000 are unaccounted for, and almost 5 million were forcibly displaced from their home since 1958. More than 80 percent of the victims were civilians and most crimes were perpetrated by anti-insurgent paramilitary groups with close ties to the state, which were organized, trained and armed in the 1990s in part by the CIA and DEA.

Colombia’s war goes back further though to 1948 when Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, a popular democratic leader, was assassinated, setting off a decade of conflict called La Violencia, in which another 200,000 people were killed. The FARC is rooted in that conflict and the resulting deal brokered by the country’s warring conservative and liberal elites to share power, rather than address gross inequality, which is among the world’s worst.

It is this inequality that is at the heart of Colombia’s conflicts, including the drug war. Greater income equality and land redistribution are the only ways to bring lasting peace, regardless of the recent negotiations.

Turning a Page

Peace talks began formally in October 2012 after months of secret contacts in Cuba, bringing the two sides closer to peace than any of three previous attempts. The government and the FARC agreed to broadly negotiate six points: land reform, political participation of insurgents, the drug trade, creating a truth commission, ending the conflict (which includes transitional justice), and implementation and ratification of deals. The first five have been partially agreed to and pending is the last point.

The real test will come after the two sides finalize the peace deal and the terms have to be ratified by the Colombian people. Santos initially suggested it would be through a referendum, which the FARC has opposed from the get-go. He has backtracked recently. The FARC alternative was to hold a constitutional assembly but that has also been ruled out. Whatever recourse Santos and the FARC agree on will test Colombians’ ability to turn a page.

If all goes as planned, within a year, FARC guerrillas will have disarmed. By then, it is likely the National Liberation Army, or ELN, will also join in, as well as other illegal armed groups. But this negotiation, as others in the past, will be useless unless the agreements are fully implemented and Colombia’s underlying problems are addressed.

War in Colombia is directly related to the structural economic inequality. As a peasant army, the FARC demanded access to land. Its evolution into a communist movement came later.

USAID estimates 62 percent of country’s best farmland is owned by 0.4 percent of the population. Additionally, ruling elites have over time imposed and tightened an unfair model that undermined Colombia’s economic growth, under-taxing land tenure while overtaxing labor, with gross economic consequences, including rendering business and industry globally uncompetitive.

Were it not for oil and coal, the country’s economy would have long stagnated, which makes overhauling the current system urgent as commodity prices are sure to remain low for at least the remainder of the decade.

Indeed, Santos has to be credited for understanding the stakes, which are not simply negotiating with the FARC. He has been using the peace process to catalyze major reforms, albeit slowly, despite angry opposition from the country’s elites and armed forces. The real test thus is still to come once peace is signed.

Can Santos deliver what no Colombian leader has accomplished since independence – forcing ruling elites to accept a more equitable distribution of power and resources? That remains to be seen.

Andrés Cala

Andrés Cala

Andrés Cala is an award-winning Colombian journalist, columnist and analyst specializing in geopolitics and energy. He is the lead author of America’s Blind Spot: Chávez, Energy, and US Security.

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