Top-level negotiations take centre-stage but the real victims remain in the countryside
As Colombia stumbles from tumultuous fanfare on the international stage to national political disarray in the space of two weeks, the population is left mulling what could have been against an uncomfortable backdrop of uncertainty, polarization and an attitude of radical Pyrrhonism towards the ruling political elite. Oh, and there was a Nobel too!
On September 26, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon lauded the peace agreement in white at the Cartagena Convention Centre and the twitter-sphere was replete with good-natured jesting at the expense of FARC commander-in-chief, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri alias “Timochenko” who perhaps reacted with all too realistic panic when an air force Kafir soared overhead in premature celebration. By 5.30pm on October 2 once the final results of the plebiscite referendum were made clear, there was no such witticism and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was left mulling over where it all went wrong. All roads in Colombia, it appears, lead to former President Alvaro Uribe.
With the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC guerrillas), for now, now occupying the moral high ground with regards to the possibilities of renegotiating the peace accords and the right-wing Uribista Democratic Centre party moving from spoilers to significant political protagonists, everything is on the line. What we are party to in the Colombian media is not perhaps the most telling barometer for a successful outcome to any future renegotiated peace agreement as all discussions are being held at the top-level between high-ranking political actors in government, members of the Government’s negotiating team and the FARC Secretariat.
On Sunday night after the results, Timochenko declared, in a brief statement from Cuba, that his organization will to continue its commitment to peace though he did not present any clear strategy. President Santos’ televised offering, most notable due to its delay in coming an hour and a half after the unanticipated outcome, was very much in the same vein: “I will not give up and will continue to strive for peace until the last-minute of my mandate,” he said, adding that a bilateral cease-fire between the two sides remains in place. The president later stated that this ceasefire will only extend to as far as October 31, but can be prolonged.
The victims of the 52-year armed conflict – who, for the first time, had their voices heard in a peace dialogue – are inconsolable and bereft of hope after the voting swung in favour, albeit marginally 50,2 per cent to 49,8 per cent representing a difference of 55,853 votes, of the No campaign. Some blame can be apportioned to Hurricane Matthew causing voters on the Caribbean coast to stay at home.
“We feel that the urban population doesn’t understand the reality and the needs to end this conflict. It was a huge opportunity for us and we missed it,” said Leyner Palacios, a survivor of the massacre in Bojayá, Choco where in May 2002, 119 people lost their lives when a FARC cylinder bomb landed on the church where townspeople were sheltering during a battle between the guerrilla and the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC, right-wing paramilitaries).
It’s important to note that voter turnout was only 37% (revealing a worrying abstention rate of some 22 million citizens), and that those regions of the country which have suffered most from the guerrilla activities (the zonas rojas) and therefore where there were most victims, overwhelmingly voted “Yes” to the peace agreement, in spite of its perceived imperfections. This included towns and regions previously strafed by violence and massacres such as Ovejas, El Salado, Bojayá, Toribio, Barbacoas, Apartado, La Macarena and Buenaventura to mention just a few of the more recognized locations.
While Colombians who backed the “No” campaign are celebrating the victory of democracy it’s hard to accept this argument since the final argument appears to be a popularity contest and three-way contest between President Juan Manuel Santos and former President Alvaro Uribe and a profound and widespread mistrust of the FARC and the nation’s staid political system.
“The negotiation should not end up being between Santos and Uribe, and neither between Uribe and the FARC,” said Dr. Silvia Mantilla of Colombia’s National University and expert in Migrations and Conflict. “The negotiation should be between all of the aforementioned and the populations of the peripheries of our society which voted Yes, they want peace. These are the people who live day-to-day in the conflict and who suffer deaths amongst their number. Between these people and those in the centre of the country, there is a huge gulf, a historical debt owed over their rightful lands, lands which need to be redistributed and these are the victims which we have to compensate,” continued Dr. Mantilla.
With merely 37 per cent of eligible voters turning out and under 51 per cent of those being the winning side, there is still a long way to go before concluding that it was true democracy. And so, as Colombia’s political landscape is in disarray as President Santos and his team scramble to protect what has been achieved with the FARC. The Government negotiating team was sent post-haste to Havana on October 3 to discuss events with their guerrilla counterparts while President Santos called upon all political parties to attend a meeting at the Palacio Nariño but Sen. Uribe’s Democratic Centre party – the referendum’s winners – has declined to attend suggesting that they too are improvising on this unexpected Plan B. Se. Uribe then agreed to some face time with President Santos three days later on October 5. Interestingly no mention has been made by Sen. Uribe on his declaration in July when the plebiscite vote was approved by the constitutional court by 7-2 that the process was “illegitimate”.
“With today’s result we know that our challenge as a political movement is even bigger,” Timochenko said on Sunday. The task ahead is nothing short of immense. How the terrain has changed since those almost halcyon days in the southern Llanos de Yari in September when the FARC was celebrating their 10th and presumably final conference as a military outfit.
If what is being revealed is nothing new in that Colombians neither trust the democratic process nor their politicians, then what of the rank and file of the guerrillas who have been assured of a positive exit to 52 years of conflict by the leaders? Middle-ranking guerrillas are particularly concerned that if they hand over their weapons, their top brass won’t be there to protect them.
At the location of the FARC’s 10th Conference in Yari, an area traditionally a bastion for the FARC rearguard dating back to the group’s emergence in the 1960’s, also referred to as Tranquilandia in some circles given that in the 1980s the Medellin cartel under Pablo Escobar would operate here with impunity in the production of their cocaine for exportation. It seemed appropriate that the FARC should congregate here for the conference and to discuss demobilization and the intricacies of the peace accords with their members. Top ranking combatants from the FARC’s Frente 1 – active in the departments of Guaviare and Vaupes – were in attendance, although notably absent was the holdout to the peace agreements Néstor Gregorio Vera Fernández alias ‘Iván Mordisco’ and his splinter group numbering some 90 people. Mordisco is reportedly sacking FARC camps, stealing any money found and re-investing it into further cocaine trafficking.
Mordisco and his men have made the headlines for their dissidence during the peace dialogues as in December 2015 they broke the FARC’s unilateral ceasefire, in July of this year they declared through a communique that they would not be complying with the agreements reached and during the plebiscite vote on October 2 they are believed to be responsible to an attack on the voting station in Miraflores, Guaviare.
If, as feared, the political negotiations between President Santos and members of the Democratic Centre party prolong, there are several ominous possibilities which could occur according to Adam Isacson and his team at the Washington Office on Latin America. Since the referendum was rejected, FARC guerrillas are “technically fugitives,” and their transfer to the 28 zones of concentration for 180 days and disarmament observed by the UN is now on hold. “Without verification and concentration, the ceasefire may become unstable.” And if these guerrillas, mainly middle and low-ranking members, feel that the Government won’t keep their end of the deal, then there’s the possibility of a “disintegration of the FARC into structures that would be impossible to demobilize.”
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a state employee for the Colombian government based in Guaviare and with contact with the FARC’s dissident Frente 1 suggested that they may be another way forward in how Mordisco and his men are dealt with before their numbers can balloon and they control completely the lucrative cocaine transshipment routes to Brazil and Venezuela.
“The FARC members keen on supporting the peace agreement signed in Havana, and seeing the threat presented by dissident groups, have suggested that Mordisco and his men are now potentially subject to a guerrilla tribunal and will be expelled from the FARC or potentially executed,” he said.
Certainly, if this is the case, then there is a proven desire from middle and high-ranking FARC combatants to exit the conflict through negotiated means.
But, there remain further risks should a disintegration of the FARC occurs. Not only are there reports surfacing that various newly formed criminal gangs or Bacrims such as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – formed out of the former right-wing paramilitary groups such as the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, Aguilas Negras and Urabeños – are offering large sums of money to guerrilla members to join their number. And not least, there’s the issue of Colombia’s second guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional or ELN) which numbers around 2,500 combatants. The ELN may be significantly smaller in size than that FARC but, its members are strategically positioned around the country and continue to cause major damage to infrastructure, in particular in oil-producing and complicated regions of the country such as Arauca and Norte de Santander.
The ELN reportedly has already been recruiting dissident FARC members and moving into traditional FARC territory such as in the department of Meta. Now that FARC guerrillas are all but certain about their future, it is not unlikely the ELN ranks will swell with FARC members worried about the government’s ability to see through their promises, the continued political uncertainty they face and the very real threat of reprisals attacks and killings at the hands of paramilitary groups. Peace talks with the ELN, which have been fractured at best, even through the exploratory stages, are set to go ahead soon.
Colombia’s volatile political dynamic, which had abated somewhat during the final months of the peace dialogues, has flared up to expose the fundamental problems which continue to afflict the country. The plebiscite vote, which exposed President Santos’ vanity and complacency has provided the kiss of life to a political party, the Democratic Centre, which was at risk of an early demise in the event of the Yes vote winning, has now been granted a new and powerful lease of life.
What is happening in the Colombian countryside as this uncertainly continues? What the FARC wants is to be able to abandon guerrilla struggle without having its members massacred and the possibility to defend its policies via legal means. The Colombian state wants to end the armed conflict in order to create better conditions for economic investment, particularly in the countryside, including potentially attracting foreign capital.
President Santos is an extremely unpopular president, criticised both from the right by Sen. Uribe, but also from the left by the trade unions, student, farmer and social movements which have been mobilising against his policies of austerity and privatization. In this context many would have been rightly skeptical about his promises in the peace agreement.
Wide layers of the Colombian masses want a solution to their pressing problems of access to land, poverty, education, healthcare, housing, state violence, inflation, impunity of the paramilitary and army violation of human rights. They looked at Santos’ record on all those issues and couldn’t bring themselves to come out to vote.
President Santos wanted to use the referendum to receive personal legitimacy but it backfired. It is Sen. Uribe and his Democratic Centre party which have benefited. The accords have been rejected, Colombia is polarized and a peace process which included the victims of the conflict has been shot down. A viable deal can be resurrected but how to do so without compromising the guerrilla, creating a power vacuum in the countryside in traditional guerrilla territory, risking a breakup of the FARC’s more fractured Frentes in a move for self-preservation and complicating matters further by creating a situation where there is no defined central chain of command with whom to negotiate.
Now, it appears that serious decisions need to be made and as has been the practice in Colombia, those at the top will make them regardless of what the most-needy require. For now, there’s no notion of a return to war, but, the unease remains. The Santos administration must do several things. First, it must control the renegotiation agenda, and most of the deal should not be reopened, of course, the only issues which should be addressed are those which have been thorny to the No campaign. This is easier said than done when the President has a weak mandate and is unpopular. How long will the FARC wait?