Colombia’s Peace Accord and the Prospects of the War System

By Nazih Richani*

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A FARC demobilization zone is visited by the UN Security Council Field Mission. / UK Mission to the UN / Lorey Campese / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Colombian peace accord has achieved another historic landmark, but the process has been anything but easy – and continues to face serious impediments.  The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have deposited 60 percent of their weapons in UN containers to be destroyed, a watershed in the history of Colombia, as the 53-year-old insurgent group enters a new phase.  A coalition of political and social groups, however, continues efforts to stymie implementation of the accord.  It includes large landowners, cattle ranchers, agribusinesses, ultra-right religious groups, and extractive multinational corporations.  Its leading spokesmen are former President Álvaro Uribe and former Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez, who are spearheading a vigorous campaign arguing that President Juan Manuel Santos and his government conceded too much to the FARC, compromising private property rights, the prevailing land-tenure system, and the country’s Christian values.  (The official line of the Colombian Catholic Church, which has strongly conservative factions, has been “neutral” on the peace accord, although Pope Francis has expressed strong support for it.)

These forces have flexed their muscles before.  They were instrumental in mobilizing opposition to the referendum on the accord last October, which forced the government to incorporate their demands by making the language of the accord clear that property rights and the agribusiness-extractive-rentier economic model remained dominant.  The opposition remains on the offensive, this time using the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Constitutional Court.  While Public Prosecutor Nestor Humberto Martínez was going after FARC money, alleging that the rebels did not declare all their assets, the Constitutional Court challenged the “Fast-Track” process by which passage of bills related to implementation of the peace accord could be accelerated by reducing the number of parliamentary debates and the time required for approval.  This opened the door for the opposition coalition in parliament to challenge the accord repeatedly with protracted debate and amendments.  Its main goal has been to prevent any change in the rural land tenure system and block the inclusion of the FARC in the political process.

The opponents’ ability to tip the political balance against the accord is likely to grow as Colombia prepares for its presidential election in May 2018.  The Santos government, the left, and center-left have already looked weak while trying to make even modest reforms necessary to create conditions for a lasting peace and facilitating a transition from a war system political economy to a different one.  The paramilitaries, including old groups that remained operative after the formal demobilization of 2005-06 (such as the “Urabeños,” mutated from the former United-Defense Forces, AUC); the drug cartels and organized crime; the dramatic expansion of coca plantations; and mining of dubious legality are important components of the “old” war system that are still potent and fuel the reactionary coalition.  The exit of the FARC (and possibly the National Liberation Army, ELN, as well) are certain to change the composition and political economy of the war system that has shaped Colombia for more than four decades, but new actors (the Urabeños and others) are emerging and mutations are taking place.  These forces will persist and wield considerable power as long as Colombia is not willing or capable of addressing the countrys need for agrarian reforms and pursuing sustainable economic development based on a more equitable distribution of wealth and income.

June 27, 2017

* Nazih Richani is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Latin American Studies at Kean University.  In 2014, the State University of New York Press published a revised and updated version of his 2002 study entitled Systems of Violence: The Political Economy of War and Peace in Colombia.

Colombia’s Last Day of War?

By Aaron T. Bell and Fulton Armstrong

Peace Signing Colombia

Photo Credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Colombia’s half-century-old war entered its final stages yesterday as President Juan Manuel Santos and leaders of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) signed a ceasefire agreement in Havana, but the successful implementation of a comprehensive peace accord still faces several uphill battles.  The five key agenda items of peace talks that began in 2012 have now been agreed upon, and the final details are expected to be hashed out by the time Colombia celebrates its independence day on July 20.  The FARC has pledged that its 7,000 soldiers will enter “Temporary Hamlet Zones of Normalization” once a final accord is signed and finish turning over their weapons to a United Nations mission within 180 days.  After signing the ceasefire, a teary-eyed “Timochenko” – the FARC’s top commander – proclaimed, “May this be the last day of war,” while President Santos celebrated that “We worked for peace in Colombia, a dream that is now becoming reality.”

One major hurdle that remains to a final peace accord is the fulfillment of President Santos’s pledge to subject it to a plebiscite.  In an interview last week, the president cautioned against any notion that a “no” vote will produce a better deal and instead warned that such an outcome would mean a return to war.  Recent polls show that 60 percent of the population says that they’ll vote yes in support of a peace accord, but the Centro Nacional de Consultoría reports that Colombians’ worst fear, which could sink approval, is that one or both sides will fail to meet its commitments.  Another poll suggests that 77 percent of Colombians do not want the FARC to participate in politics, a suggestion that Timochenko has rejected.  Former President Álvaro Uribe and his Centro Democrático party have led the charge against peace talks under the slogan “Yes to peace but not like this,” and they are unlikely to stop now despite Uribe’s pledge yesterday “not to react to the impulse of first impressions.”  Uribe and his supporters have accused Santos in the past of “handing over the country to the FARC,” and 37 percent of Colombians have reported feeling that the government is conceding too much.  They are not entirely alone in this estimate, as even generally neutral observers like Human Rights Watch have suggested that the transitional justice provisions – which will provide reduced sentences to those guerrillas who confess their crimes – let the FARC off the hook.

The signing of a peace agreement between the two sides is indeed historic, but Santos and Timochencko affixing their signatures to the document is just the beginning of another arduous process.  Winning the referendum will require Santos to show vigorous political leadership and enforce greater discipline on his own cabinet team, some of whom have been less than enthusiastic in support of an accord.  Even approval in the plebiscite will of course not immediately resolve the many security challenges facing Colombia.  Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commission for Human Rights in Colombia, has noted that the FARC’s demobilization and disarmament could create a power vacuum in rural areas.  Turf wars over coca cultivation, cocaine processing, and the drug trade in which the FARC has been deeply involved since the 1990s are likely to continue, while neo-paramilitaries will likely to fight for a bigger piece of the pie.  In addition, government negotiations with the smaller Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) have been slow to start.  The international community can help with some of these issues, as it has in supporting the years-long peace process, but the real work will need to be done by Santos and his supporters.  Santos’s presidency and the long-term success of any accords rest on his ability to ensure public support, not only now but in the future, as he enters the final years in office.

June 24, 2016

Colombia Peace: The War System Yields to Peace

By Nazih Richani*

Colombia Peace Mural

Mural “Nostalgia” painted by the creative collective Deúniti at La Presidenta Park in Medellín, Colombia. Photo Credit: Deúniti, colectivo creativo / Flickr / Creative Commons

Amidst growing optimism at the prospects of achieving a peace agreement in Colombia after more than a half century of irregular warfare, predictions about whether the parties can reach an accord, and sustain it over the long term, should be informed by understanding the underlying logic that fueled the conflict and may now be bringing it to a close. Civil wars are complex social systems with peculiar properties, dynamics, and political economy.  Similar to other social systems, a war system—a set of violent interacting units—rests on a point of equilibrium, which can shift depending on the system’s inner dynamics and external stimuli.  The exponential growth in the 1990s of Colombia’s two main Marxist rebel groups—the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN)—prompted the emergence of right-wing paramilitaries, an instrument of the state’s counterinsurgency strategy.  An expansion of the radius of the war and surge in combat-related fatalities, massacres, land dispossession, and displacements followed.  The failure of peace talks between the FARC and the government of President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) indicated that the war system was largely unchanged despite the escalation.

The intervention of a new actor—the United States—disrupted the equilibrium of the war system.  Under “Plan Colombia,” Washington (committing about $10 billion) and Bogotá ($80-100 billion) modernized and restructured the Colombian armed forces.  This new phase in the war system marked a departure from the “comfortable stalemate” that characterized the conflict between 1964 and 2000.  New weapons, air power, tactical flexibility, and expanding mobile commando brigades with U.S. military and technical support, enabled the Colombian armed forces to put the FARC on the defensive.  It took the FARC leadership more than eight years to adjust, losing territory and, more importantly, three of its main leaders: Raul Reyes (2008), Mono Jojoy (2010), and Alfonso Cano (2011).  But the FARC’s “Plan Rebirth”—reverting from “mobile war of positions” to guerrilla warfare, creating more interdependent commando units, and using more snipers and mines—changed the balance anew.

The new equilibrium in the war system, in which the law of the diminishing returns of the war’s investment started kicking in, drove both sides to conclude that the time for peace was arriving.  Colombia’s ruling elites concluded that prosecuting the war would be too costly at a time that U.S. attention was shifting to other theaters and threats.  FARC commander Alfonso Cano, months before his targeted killing, communicated the intention of his movement to seek a negotiated settlement as well.  The cost of continued war had become too great for both sides, and external factors—the death of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and the changing Andean regional political environment—were also factors.  FARC became convinced that trading bullets for ballots could help in achieving the remaining objectives of its armed rebellion.  As the two sides continue to make progress in peace talks in Havana, outsiders who want the accords to succeed would do well to remember that disruptions to the war system equilibrium could easily threaten both sides’ commitment to signing and implementing a final deal.

January 11, 2016

Nazih Richani is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Latin American Studies at Kean University.  In 2014 the State University of New York Press  published a revised and updated version of his 2002 study entitled Systems of Violence: The Political Economy of War and Peace in Colombia.

Colombia’s Peace Talks: The End of the Beginning

By Aaron T. Bell

Americas Quarterly / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Americas Quarterly / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Recent events suggest that, as peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas resume in Cuba later this month, substantial progress toward an agreement is at hand.  Talks were suspended in November when a Colombian general and two lawyers were kidnapped under circumstances that remain unclear, but cooler heads prevailed and the three were quickly released.  The FARC announced an indefinite unilateral cease-fire in late December and, in the first such act taken by either side, acknowledged their responsibility for a 2002 civilian massacre in the town of Bojayá and asked for forgiveness from victims.  President Juan Manuel Santos has been reluctant to ease military pressure on the guerrillas, but the FARC’s show of good faith led him to call on government negotiators last week to prioritize the arrangement of a bilateral cease-fire.  Santos has encouraged negotiators to accelerate talks so that a public referendum on the peace accords can be held concurrent with October’s local elections.

A final agreement may still be several months off as negotiators work through the complexities of victim compensation and a transitional justice system, but the effects of negotiations are already being felt in Colombia.  Observers from the Centro de Recursos para el Análisis de Conflictos reported the lowest level of violence related to the armed conflict in 30 years during the first three weeks of the FARC’s cease-fire. This news was complemented by reports that Colombia’s murder rate hit a 30-year low in 2014, thanks in part to truces brokered among the country’s largest criminal gangs.  The success of the government’s negotiations with the FARC appears to be spilling over into the armed conflict with the ELN guerrillas as well.  At the beginning of 2015 the ELN announced willingness to enter into peace talks like those with the FARC, and they strongly implied that such talks would lead them to lay down their arms.  A six-point agenda for negotiations was publicly announced this past weekend, and a cease-fire may not be far behind.  In economic terms, an end to insurgent violence may spell much-needed relief for Colombia’s oil industry, a frequent target for guerrilla sabotage over the years, which is now reeling from falling oil prices.  Negotiations have also procured European political and financial support for Colombia.  Beginning this month, the European Union will begin funding a five-year, $86 million program to bolster small-scale producers and reduce rural inequality, and other potential funding may result from a European tour by Santos last fall.  Germany pledged $95 million in loans to follow peace agreements, and the EU and several member nations pledged funding for post-conflict reconstruction projects.

While the Santos government and the FARC appear to be entering the endgame of peace negotiations, the process of resolving the underlying conditions that have fueled decades of conflict in Colombia will be long and difficult.  The FARC was unhappy with the government’s unilateral decision to implement a peace referendum, preferring instead a constituent assembly that would give greater representation to traditionally marginalized groups in Colombian society.  Political inclusion is a substantial concern given both Colombia’s history and the attitude of right-wing opponents of negotiations.  Among the groups gearing up for a substantial run in the October elections is the Centro Democrático, the party of former president Álvaro Uribe, which took Santos to a second round of voting in last summer’s presidential elections.  Uribe claimed recently that the FARC – with Santos’s support – is using the threat of terrorism and the allure of peace to take power through elections in 2018 and even eventually establish a “totalitarian government.”  Land reform is another major concern.  Skewed land distribution has traditionally been a major source of social unrest and has worsened over the last 50 years of fighting.  Amnesty International and Oxfam have identified serious obstacles to resolving the problem and it will be difficult to ensure that large multinationals won’t benefit disproportionately from redistribution schemes.  The government and the guerrillas both deserve praise for their progress, but winning a lasting peace will require continued cooperation in reforming an ingrained system of inequality and exclusion.

January 20, 2015

South America: Low Expectations for U.S. Election

Photo is in the public domain

Media in Colombia, Chile, and Peru are paying close attention to the U.S. presidential election, but only in Colombia do commentators seem to sense that November’s vote could have a direct impact on their country.  Colombian opinion-makers have not articulated specific concerns; their attention appears premised merely on the immensity of the relationship.  In Peru, commentators have noted concern about the positions advocated in the Republican primaries on a host of issues, such as immigration and the Cold War optic the GOP candidates espoused.  Chileans are following the horse race with curiosity but little mention of its potential implications.  In these countries, which are generally open to working with Washington, there is dissatisfaction with Obama but greater trepidation about a return to the foreign policies that characterized the Bush-Cheney era.  “Obama losing would not matter much,” wrote Antonio Caballero in Colombia’s Semana.  “But what would matter, a lot, is his Republican rival Mitt Romney winning.”  The columnist said it would be like re-electing Hoover after four years of Roosevelt.

Commentators fret that Romney’s swing right during the primaries proves he is unable to stand up to what they describe as conservative, white Tea Partiers on issues including gun control and taxes, but especially on immigration.  In Diario Correo, Peruvian Isaac Bigio wrote that Romney and Ryan would “launch an offensive against immigrants.”  On foreign policy, commentators see Obama’s record as mediocre.  In Colombia, the president gains points for passing the free trade agreement, but loses them for an overall lack of focus on the hemisphere.  But Romney’s rhetoric, punctuated by swipes at Russia and what he labeled a Chávez-Castro axis in the hemisphere, has created uneasy feelings.  “Romney advocates an aggressive discourse and hard hand in international relations,”writes Sergio Muñoz Bata of Bogota’s El Tiempo.  “If this sounds like a repetition of Bush’s policies, that is because those who dictate the foreign policy of the Republican candidate today are the same people who dictated Bush’s policies yesterday.”  Peruvian Santiago Pérez writes in Los Andes that Romney might “harden the U.S. position against ALBA…and try to intimidate (probably unsuccessfully) his unthreatening Bolivarian enemies.”  A return of the GOP could pose problems for the ongoing talks with the FARC and ELN, moderate Colombians fear.  Writing in Portafolio, Ricardo Ávila Pinto noted that Bogotá should be wary of “the U.S. reaction to any eventual success in the peace process with the FARC.”  Likewise, Chile’s Ernesto Ottone writes that Romney’s “uncultured simple-mindedness in foreign affairs responds to identity-based fanaticism with a warlike tone.”

A consistent theme is that the 2012 election lacks the hope of four years prior – hope for more effective U.S. partnership with the region, which Obama promised at the Summit of the Americas soon after his inauguration but has failed to deliver.  Many outlets reported former President Jimmy Carter’s comment that neither candidate was likely to pay much attention to the region.   While Colombian and Peruvian media reflect public concerns about immigration, the most prevalent fear is that a return to strident rhetoric would only heighten tensions between the U.S. and ALBA-aligned countries.  Colombia, Peru, and Chile don’t want to be stuck in the middle. There are no great expectations for improvement, but there is considerable worry about further decline.