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Colombia: What prospects for the peace negotiations between FARC and government?

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fighters walk in San Isidro, Colombia, May 30.

See also "Colombia: The end for guerrilla warfare?" For more coverage of Colombia, click HERE.

By Anthony Boynton, Bogota

September 12, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The government of Colombia on September 4 announced that it had begun peace negotiations with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia (FARC, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The news was quickly confirmed by the FARC. Although FARC still leads thousands of armed fighters and has the financial resources to continue fighting, the decimation of its leadership combined with its political isolation has brought it to the point of no return. It has entered a new peace process with the government of Juan Manuel Santos with far less than it had to bargain with when it sat down at the negotiating table with the government of Andres Pastrana more than a decade ago.

This time the chances are very likely that a deal will be made, but the shape of that deal -- and the success of its implementation -- will depend not only on the two sides at the negotiating table, but also on powerful players who will not be at the table.

Of the numerous Marxist-oriented guerrilla armies fighting in various parts of the world three decades ago, the FARC and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional de Colombia (ELN) stand out because they could not take power, but were not defeated; they negotiated to end the conflicts, but failed in the attempts.

The reasons for this situation are many. They include:

  • Colombia is not a small country like Cuba, Nicaragua or El Salvador.
  • Colombia combines a large urban population with a very large, but sparsely populated, territory of mountains, tropical plains and tropical forests.
  • Colombia has not been occupied by an invading foreign army since the wars of liberation at the beginning of the 19th century. The Colombian state has legitimacy as the descendant of those revolutionary wars.
  • Divisions within the Colombian ruling class.
  • Perfidy and dishonesty of Colombian governments in past negotiations.
  • The intersection of the Colombian cocaine boom with the armed conflict.
  • The belief by the FARC that it could take power militarily without popular support in the cities.

Agenda and structure of peace process

According to the formal announcement of the peace negotiations by Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, on September 4, negotiations will be bilateral without intermediaries. They will be held in two stages, the first stage in Oslo, Norway, beginning on October 4, and the second stage in Havana, Cuba, beginning at an unspecified date. Santos emphasised that the negotiations would be over in a matter of months, and that if an agreement is not reached the talks will be terminated. There will be no ceasefire, and there will be no demilitarised zone.

There will be a five-point agenda for the talks: rural development, guarantees for the exercise of political opposition and citizen participation, an end of the armed conflict, drug trafficking and victims’ rights.

Soon after Santos’ announcement, FARC held a press conference in Havana at which it aired a videotaped speech by Timochenko (nom de guerre of Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri), its top commander, that confirmed all of the main points made by Santos and emphasised FARC’s desire to make a permanent, long-lasting peace agreement.

In the days immediately following the original announcement FARC proposed an immediate ceasefire and proposed that Simon Trinidad (nom de guerre of Juvenal Ovidio Ricardo Palmera Pineda) be released from prison in the USA to join the FARC’s negotiating team. The Colombian government rebuffed FARC on both points. Talks are proceeding as scheduled.

This may indicate the tone for the process to come, and certainly indicates the weakness of FARC’s bargaining position. The fact that the negotiations are taking place outside Colombia rather than in a demilitarised zone within Colombia was already a major concession by FARC from their longstanding position regarding the necessary conditions for any peace negotiations.

Military and political balance of power in 2000

The military balance of power has tipped strongly against FARC since its peak around 2000. At the end of the 20th century most estimates placed FARC’s armed strength at around 25,000 fighters. They were mostly armed with AK47s and had developed an arsenal that included various types of mortars, rockets and landmines. They were able to mount coordinated offensives involving several fronts and hundreds of fighters. Their largest offensives resulted in overrunning several small towns and holding them for a few days, and destroying several small military bases. It was estimated at that time that the FARC held about 450 people captive, mostly for failure to pay “taxes”, but some for purely political reasons.

In 2000 the Colombian state’s armed forces far outnumbered the FARC with a combined strength of approximately 150,000 soldiers, sailors and police officers. It completely outgunned the FARC with an arsenal including artillery, tanks, helicopter gunships and transport, and military fighter and bomber aircraft. It also wielded thousands of paramilitary assassins and torturers (the exact number is unknown because many of the paramilitary thugs were active duty soldiers on clandestine assignments) who were not officially part of the state, but were secretly directed and coordinated by the Colombian army and by DAS (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad – Colombia’s equivalent of the FBI and CIA combined).

Nevertheless, the Colombian military was a very poor fighting force. Its intelligence had no idea where the FARC and ELN were, or where the FARC or ELN were going to attack. Its generals and colonels were notoriously corrupt and had little respect from the mass of soldiers. The soldiers and lower ranking officers were demoralised. FARC was able to win victories by gaining tactical battlefield numerical advantage and surprise.

Politically, FARC was seen by millions of people as the victim of the paramilitary and state terror that had killed thousands of militants of the Unión Patriotica (UP). Most people viewed it as a legitimate part of the much broader Colombian left that was struggling to defend itself and to win social progress, justice and even to attain a socialist society.

While FARC never enjoyed mass support in Colombian society as a whole (the best measure of its support is probably the election results of the UP, which was able to win 17 seats in Congress and the Senate), it did have a substantial popular base, especially in small towns and in certain regions of the country.

Nevertheless, FARC’s military strategy had severely weakened its popular support.

FARC financed itself in part from taxation. Every farm and business in its areas of influence were asked to pay taxes. The farmers and businesses viewed the taxes as extortion. If they did not pay, FARC arrested and held prisoner a member of their family. The families viewed this as kidnapping.

After decades of this practice, the petty bourgeoisie of the small towns, and the farmers around the small towns, had turned against the FARC. Their anger extended to their city cousins.

Militarily, FARC’s primary objectives were the easy targets. This meant unguarded petroleum pipelines, electricity transmission lines in isolated mountain or jungle areas, small isolated military outposts and police stations in small towns.

Destruction of electricity transmission lines allowed the government to blame FARC for every blackout that occurred in the country, whether or not it was involved. This was no small issue for the millions of poor people who had electricity for the first time in their lives. Attacks on small-town police stations often resulted in civilian casualties, which gave the state another public relations hammer to beat FARC with.

By 2000 FARC’s popular support was especially weak in the major cities, even among the millions of people who had been displaced from the countryside – including from the rural strongholds of FARC.

The two major traditional ruling-class political parties – the Liberals and Conservatives – were in the process of disintegration. Both parties were traditionally corrupt, and had become more corrupt with the influx of cocaine money in the 1980s. The new constitution that had resulted from the peace agreement with the M-19 guerilla army and the constituent assembly that followed ended the traditional electoral system, which allowed local one-party monopolies and replaced it with a complicated proportional representation system. New parties and coalitions flourished.

The state appeared to be in a political crisis.

Plan Colombia and the Uribe government

Plan Colombia was devised by the governments of US President Bill Clinton and Colombia’s President Andres Pastrana to radically improve the military and political balance in favour of the Colombian state and its imperialist allies.

The plan was simple: to combine major concessions to FARC to gain time, with reorganising, rearming, retraining and enlarging the armed forces. At the end of the process FARC would have either signed a peace agreement on terms acceptable to the state and to the United States, or FARC would be discredited as intransigent opponents of peace. The second alternative occurred; when it did the Colombian military launched a prolonged offensive against FARC.

A key part of Plan Colombia was a rapid acceleration in construction of basic infrastructure. Electrification of the country (already substantial) was completed, the telephone network was completed, a cell phone system was extended into almost every corner of the country and billions of dollars were invested in the transportation infrastructure.

Alongside of Plan Colombia went behind the scenes negotiations to create ruling-class unity on a one-point program: defeat the FARC. When Pastrana’s term of office ended, a grand coalition of ruling-class parties nominated Alvaro Uribe as its candidate for president. Uribe’s most important qualification for the job was his desire for revenge against the FARC for having killed his father. A secondary consideration was the fact that he represented the most corrupt sectors of the major landowners of Antioquia, who had been intimately connected with Pablo Escobar’s Medellin drugs cartel and who were the real puppet masters of the paramilitary Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC).

In his first term as president Uribe concentrated on making the army fight. He appointed Martha Lucia Ramirez as his minister of defence with the mission of purging the general staff. Her message to them was simple: you can steal if you fight, if you don’t you’re out. She fired 16 generals and dozens of colonels.

In truth, most of the army did not have to fight: the offensive was almost entirely carried out by a few small units called the airborne rapid deployment force (Fuerza de Despliegue Rápido, FUDRA) that had been established by the Pastrana government and was expanded to five brigades during the Uribe administration. It was used to retake the demilitarised zone and for almost all subsequent offensive actions against FARC including the attacks that have killed many of FARC's main commanders.

Also in his first term Uribe revealed that he had a much larger vision than the simple program of his ruling coalition. He planned to make himself president for life and to impose a new constitution that would greatly strengthen the powers of the president and eliminate the social-democratic and democratic reforms in the current constitution. These efforts received strong backing from the Catholic Church, the drug dealers and sectors of the military. They rang alarm bells in other powerful sectors of Colombia’s ruling class, who began to defect from the Uribe coalition.

Uribe launched the most bizarre peace negotiations ever conducted on the planet when his government negotiated with the paramilitary organisations surreptitiously controlled by the same government. The Punch and Judy show, riddled with fraud and deception, officially demobilised the paramilitary organisations, but in reality resulted in the formation of powerful new criminal organisations, such as the Aguilas Negras, which overshadow the official state apparatus in areas they control such as the north-western corner of Colombia known as Uraba.

In Uribe’s second term, the offensive against FARC continued. Uribe and his new minister of defence Juan Manuel Santos brought the country to the brink of war with neighbouring Venezuela and Ecuador following the attack in Ecuadoran national territory which killed FARC commander Raul Reyes.

Uribe turned much of the offensive over to Santos and the military, and turned his own eyes to enriching himself, his family and friends. This further fractured the ruling-class coalition and led to more defections.

A long string of judicial prosecutions has sent key Uribe friends and allies to jail to the point that his cousin and right hand in the Senate is in jail, his sons are under investigation for corrupt practices and the general who was his security chief has been extradited and jailed in the United States for working with drug dealers. Uribe himself is rumoured to be a target of prosecutors in the United States.

Left crisis

The left in Colombia has been unable to take advantage of the crisis of Uribismo, in large part due to its own crisis. During the two decades following the peace agreement between M-19 and the government, and the new constitution that followed from that deal, a legal reformist, electoralist, social-democratic political movement grew in Colombia’s cities. Centred in the country’s capital Bogota in the Polo Democratico Alternativo, this movement elected three successive mayors: Eduardo “Lucho” Garzon, Samuel Moreno and Gustavo Petro.

It suffered a major crisis with the corruption scandal that erupted during the term ofMoreno. The crisis has not yet been resolved. Gustavo Petro led a split of the Polo, which formed a new party called the Progresistas. This was followed more recently by the formation of Marcha Patriotica (Patriotic March) at the initiative of the Communist Party and the subsequent expulsion of the Communist Party from the Polo.

One key ruling-class ally that did not desert Uribe was the Santos family. Francisco Santos was Uribe’s vice-president and his cousin Juan Manuel Santos was his minister of defence. The Santos family is the most important bastion of the oligarchic section of the traditional Liberal Party and, until recently, owners of the El Tiempo media empire (newspapers, television, radio, cable TV and internet). In addition to his hat as minister of defence, Juan Manuel Santos was also the head of the Partido Social de Unidad Nacional, a splinter from the Liberal Party that became bigger than its parent party and was the main party of the Uribe coalition. From his positions in politics and the government Juan Manuel Santos quietly prepared his own campaign for president to succeed Uribe.

Uribe’s coalition changed the constitution in his first term to allow presidents a second term, but in his second term, Uribe failed to win his proposal to allow him to run for a third term. Uribe was already on his way down, but he thought he could maintain his power by placing a loyal puppet in power: Juan Manuel Santos.

Balance of power in 2012

While no one knows exactly how many armed fighters the FARC has today, the Colombian government has estimated that there are about 8000– and the FARC has not disputed this number. FARC has rescinded its “Law 2” and the taxation and arrests related to it. It has released all of the hostages it held for economic and political reasons.

The combined forces of the military and police have expanded to about 400,000 – close to 1% of the entire population of the country. (The militarisation of the country has had enormous economic, social and political consequences that go beyond the scope of this article.)

Besides the sheer increase in numbers, the military has retooled itself. Of particular importance has been the reorganisation of military intelligence, much of which has in fact been turned over to the United States in one way or another. Electronic surveillance of all forms of FARC communications using satellites, electronically loaded spy planes, wire taps and internet surveillance have compromised all FARC communications. Human intelligence based on long-term surveillance, infiltration and large rewards for information has added to the government’s capacities.

These changes have nearly eliminated the FARC’s ability to gain tactical battlefield advantage and surprise in its offensive operations, and have also given the government the ability to pinpoint the encampments of FARC even when they are well hidden in isolated locations.

Although FARC’s recent offensive has shown that it can still attack infrastructure in the eastern tropical plains, and in the southern areas of the country, FARC admits that it has suffered major losses.

Juan Manuel Santos was elected president in August 2010 with Uribe’s support, but without the sectors of the Uribista coalition that have been publicly identified with the paramilitary organisations. Santos broadened his coalition to include the Green Party, one of whose leaders is Eduardo Garzon, a former leader of the left and former mayor of Bogota, and to include the Liberal Party.

Santos almost immediately moved to restore relations with Venezuela and Ecuador and simultaneously initiated secret contacts with FARC. Those contacts developed into the current peace process. Santos did not stop the military offensive however.

Alvaro Uribe and the elements of his coalition most closely identified with paramilitarism and drug dealing have become the only important vocal opposition to the current peace process. Their opposition is undoubtedly due to more than simply rabid right wing ideology and thirst for revenge. If the armed conflict between the state and FARC ends, but the war on drugs does not, they will become central targets of the war machine they only recently thought they controlled.

The new peace process has received the public support of all of the rest of Colombia’s political spectrum, plus the governments of the world.

Three countries played key roles in facilitating and guaranteeing the secret negotiations that led to this public process: Cuba, Venezuela and Norway. Norway will be the site of the first phase of public negotiations; Cuba will host the final phase.

What the future holds

My crystal ball fell off my table years ago, and has never worked properly since. Still, a few guesses about where this process may be going are in order.

First, it is very likely that FARC and Santos will sign an agreement by the end of this year, or at the latest in the first quarter of next year.

In addition to everything mentioned above, my guess takes into account an appreciation of Juan Manuel Santos. Santos is a ruthless but intelligent and cautious politician. He has no compunction to order the military or paramilitaries into action as his record has shown, but he and his family’s business interests have never been identified with the illegal drug business. Instead they have always been identified as modernisers who have invested and made money from communications, real estate, foreign trade and the development of Colombia’s mineral resources.

Santos would like to win reelection. He would not have made the negotiations with FARC public if he had thought they would fail.

Second, the formation of the Marcha Patriotica, and the subsequent expulsion of the Communist Party from the Polo Democratico Alternativo, seemed slightly irrational when they occurred. Why would the Communist Party, a key founding component of the Polo, set up a competing organisation like Marcha Patriotica? This question is especially irksome when you consider that the Communist Party’s position within the Polo had been strengthened by the departure of the mostly former M-19 militants led by Gustavo Petro to form the Progresistas. This move makes sense, however, if it were motivated by knowledge of the private peace negotiations and preparations to make a place for FARC within the legal left.

The fact that the Marcha Patriotica has been singled out for attacks by the Uribistas, and for death threats by the supposedly non-existent paramilitaries, adds weight to this possibility.

Although the negotiations between the government and FARC only became public in early September, rumours had been flying for months. Alvaro Uribe fueled many of these rumours, but there were many other sources within government ministries.

What will happen after an agreement is signed is another question. Colombia has a long history of peace agreements to end violent internal conflicts. And they have never ended the violent internal conflict in this country. After each agreement the violence has flared again in a new form. Scepticism about the possibility of a new agreement runs high here.

The paramilitaries and drug dealers will be the biggest losers if an agreement is signed, not only for the reasons already mentioned, but because any agreement is likely to involve some restitution of lands stolen from displaced people and some compensation for the victims of the long conflict.

Certainly the paramilitaries and their allies within the military and police will target demobilised FARC leaders and fighters for assassination. Protection against this danger will be one of the key points of the negotiations, but no agreement can guarantee protection. Political people in this country remember that M-19 leader Carlos Pizarro was assassinated by the DAS while under its protection.

If that happens, it will play into the hands of Santos and his coalition, who are looking to completely realign Colombian politics into what they believe will finally be a stable three-party political system mirroring the system in the United Kingdom. In their dream of the future, the reborn Liberals and Conservatives will be joined by a stable social-democratic force.

What will happen to the legal left is perhaps the hardest element to predict. FARC will join the three major competitors that now exist: Marcha Patriotica, Polo Democratico Alternativo and the Progresistas. FARC’s prestige and political support are at an all-time low now and even entry into the arena of legal politics may not revive its fortunes.

Another imponderable factor for the left is the potential for the rebirth of a mass movement in the streets. Last year saw the momentary rise of a new mass student movement and renewed militancy by workers, which could be repeated again. Can a new mass movement be channelled into the old left framework?

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