Oct 13 2016 (Dawn, Pakistan) – It was at least partly a case of unfortunate timing: had the referendum on the Colombian government’s peace deal with Latin America’s most resilient guerrilla force been held shortly after President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last week, its outcome may well have been different.
Instead, Colombians by a tiny margin rejected the fruit of four years of intensive negotiations a few days before the Nobel committee’s announcement. The latter, obliged to take cognisance of the result, noted that it was a rejection of “not the desire for peace, but a specific peace agreement”.
That is partially a fair assessment: no one was openly arguing in favour of prolonging the conflict, even though the negative campaign routinely resorted to extravagant lies about Colombia’s prospects in the event of a positive outcome. The trouble is, the Santos government, fully expecting a positive outcome, had no Plan B.
Hostilities in Colombia have claimed some 260,000 lives.
The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionares de Colombia (FARC) has indicated its reluctance to revisit the terms of the agreement signed this past summer. The ceasefire currently in place expires at the end of this month, but neither side is keen to return to the hostilities that have claimed an estimated 260,000 lives.
The ‘no’ campaign in the referendum, spearheaded by the far-right former president Alvaro Uribe, sought to create the impression that the deal is far too lenient to “terrorists and narco-traffickers”, alongside wilder insinuations that it would usher in “atheistic communism” and other such nonsense.
It is a given that any agreement between belligerents entails compromises. What are the chances FARC would have been willing to pursue negotiations had the other side unequivocally insisted on an unconditional surrender? Whereas previous initiatives towards a settlement had floundered, the guerrillas recognised that the Santos government was serious about a settlement, not least because it was willing to involve military personnel in the negotiations.
The 297-page agreement between the two sides contains provisions for the rehabilitation of former combatants and a political role, including parliamentary representation, for FARC. It also proposes truth-and-reconciliation tribunals, with relatively mild penalties for those willing to come clean about their transgressions, but makes a distinction between political actions and purely criminal activities, with the latter potentially subject to more stringent punishments.
This does not quite add up to the impunity alleged by the ‘no’ campaign. At the same time, it’s vital to remember that there are at least two sides in any war. FARC can certainly be held responsible for human rights violations, but egregious excesses were also committed by state forces, from the military and police to ruthless right-wing death squads, often with CIA assistance. It is more than likely that powerful elements of the Uribe-led opposition to the peace agreement particularly resent its apparent acknowledgement that accountability is a two-way street.
FARC was founded in 1964 by Manuel Marulanda, who remained at its helm for decades and died just eight years ago. Speaking at the United Nations the same year, Ernesto Che Guevara referred mockingly to a Colombia where “the oligarchy has attained what we might call the peak of democracy”, with the liberal and conservative parties, representing more or less the same vested interests, alternating in power.
The peasantry that neither of these parties represented had been the primary victim of a vicious political rivalry during a period known as La Violencia in the 1940s-50s, which accou¬nted for 200,000 deaths. Short-lived autonomous communist ‘republics’ sprang up in the countryside. The oligarchy ultimately pre¬vailed but, as thr¬o¬ugh much of Latin America, the root causes of rural restiveness — vast latifundia for a few, virtual serfdom for most others — rema¬i¬ned unredressed.
This inevitably created political space for groups such as FARC and Ejercito de Liberacion (ELN), among others. Disunity among the left was crucial in thwarting its progress, as has all too often been the case in so many parts of the world. The communist party adopted FARC, while the ELN had Fidelista inclinations; the latter even had a martyr of its own — Camillo Torres — who for a while almost matched Che Guevara as a source of posthumous inspiration.
Although overshadowed by FARC in recent decades, the ELN still exists. So do monumental disparities in land ownership. The peace deal makes an effort to address them: it incorporates some commitments to land reforms and greater social justice, alongside vows of cooperative endeavours towards eradicating coca fields.
FARC has drifted far from its revolutionary origins, but the Colombian state remains fundamentally the same. The agreement between the two should usher in peace but may also adjust the national trajectory in other significant ways. It must be hoped that the Nobel Prize will help to prevent it from being consigned to history’s dustbin.
Published in Dawn October 12th, 2016
This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan