Gambling on peace in Colombia
To the surprise of many ordinary Colombians, President Juan Manuel Santos has opted to engage the so-called Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army, a guerilla group popularly known as FARC – in talks aimed at bringing the hemisphere’s longest running armed conflict involving a government and an insurgent military force to an end.
Created in 1964 during Latin America’s heady days of Marxist revolutionary fervour that coincided with the early years of the Cuban revolution and the vigorous indigenous resistance in some countries in the hemisphere to the export of ‘yankee imperialism,’ FARC, perhaps surprisingly, has outlived other ideologically driven insurgent groups that also had their origins in similar anti-imperialist sentiment.
An earlier attempt to negotiate peace between the Colombian government and FARC ended in failure about a decade ago, and there are those who believe that what has brought FARC back to the negotiating table is the realization that in an era when democratically elected governments have supplanted ‘tinpot dictatorships’ in the hemisphere, it may have become something of an anachronism.
During the almost half a century of conflict between successive Colombian governments and FARC, countless lives have been lost. More than that, both the Colombian authorities and the rebel group have seen their circumstances change significantly, making an end to hostilities the only rational option. Securing the state by force is no longer a strategically viable option and FARC knows this.
For its part the Colombian government, having become increasingly preoccupied with the implications of its reputation as the world’s largest drug exporter (which preoccupation includes waging a full-time war against the various powerful groups engaged in the drug trade) can do without the distraction of having to rein in FARC.
How much of a fighting force FARC remains today has become a matter of conjecture. Having over the years consolidated its military capability reportedly to up to tens of thousands of fighters maintained by financing secured chiefly through kidnappings for ransom and engaging in the drug trade, the organization has taken some hard knocks in recent years. Since 2008 it has suffered several setbacks including the killing of rebel leader Raul Reyes and the death (reportedly from natural causes) of its founder Manuel Marulanda in March of that year. In September 2010 and November 2011, respectively, two to the FARC’s top military commanders, Jorge Briceno and Alfonso Cano were killed.
Earlier this year FARC announced that it would cease the practice of kidnappings for ransom, which practice had been denounced even by ordinary Colombians who had supported their cause.
Both the Colombian government and the FARC rebels have good reason to want peace though President Santos appears to have decided to negotiate with his guard up, so to speak. He has refused to agree to the ceasefire which the FARC has asked for.
Cuba and Venezuela appear to have been facilitators in the preliminary discourses between the Santos administration and the FARC leadership which have reportedly been going on for some months, and the fact that Norway has agreed to host the substantive negotiations, suggests that there are states in the international community that are prepared to facilitate a process that might bring an end to more than half a century of internal conflict in Colombia. Still, President Santos is clearly walking a tightrope. If he pulls off a lasting peace agreement with FARC he would have secured his own political legacy. If the bid for peace fails, however, the long knives are bound to be unsheathed by powerful right-wing elements and many ordinary Colombians who have come to believe that FARC has no intention of negotiating itself out of existence.