A democratic opening in the Colombian peace process

Just over a year ago, our interest was piqued by  the peace process initiated by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos with his country’s revolutionary Marxist-Leninist guerrillas, the FARC, in which Cuba and Norway were playing key mediating roles (October 26, 2012, Colombia and the FARC).

On November 6 last, a year and a day after an intense series of negotiations began in Havana, it was announced in that city that the painstaking process was beginning to bear real fruit: there was “fundamental agreement” on the second item of the five-point agenda set in Oslo last year, that  is, on political participation.

The joint communiqué issued by the government and the FARC speaks of consensus on: 1) rights and guarantees, including access to communication media, for the functioning of the political opposition and for new movements arising from the signature of a final agreement; 2) democratic mechanisms for citizen participation; and 3) effective measures to promote greater, equitable and secure participation by all sectors, including the most vulnerable, in local, regional and national politics. The principles agreed effectively establish the conditions for the emergence of new political parties, including the conversion of armed insurrectionist groups into political parties. In sum, once the guerrillas of the FARC agree to disarmament and a peace treaty, then they can be incorporated into the Colombian political system.

What the communiqué refers to as “a democratic opening” in the context of bringing to a close the armed conflict, which has claimed over 200,000 lives over some 50 years, is but one step in the process to find a lasting peace. Nevertheless, although there are other issues to be resolved, it is being regarded by all parties – negotiators, mediators and the international community as a whole – as a critical and huge step forward. The devil is, of course, in the detail and more negotiations are to follow.

In May, there was agreement on agrarian reform. Now, there remain the challenges of settling differences on the drugs trade, victims’ rights and compensation, and, above all, disarmament and the peace deal itself. Nobody is under any illusion that the rest of the process will be easy, not least because the last point already presents itself as the greatest hurdle to clear. For example, will the rebels simply agree to lay down their arms or will they surrender them to the government and will those accused of human rights abuses and other atrocities be brought to justice or will there be a blanket amnesty? Hard to say at this point, but the right noises are being made.

Humberto de la Calle, President Santos’ chief negotiator, has stressed the importance of a peaceful transition to consolidate the agreements achieved to date, bearing in mind that  there is as yet no official ceasefire. In this respect, he hailed the new “democratic opening” and announced that, in order to consolidate the rights of the opposition and promote the participation of people, social organisations and movements, guarantees have been agreed relating to mobilisation and peaceful protest within the framework of rights and obligations. He also announced reforms to promote electoral transparency and participation, stressing the need to foster “a culture of co-existence, tolerance and respect.”

For his part, the FARC’s lead negotiator Iván Márquez called the development “an important step in the right direction to end the conflict and to achieve real democracy in Colombia.”

President Santos himself has welcomed the news from Havana, declaring that Colombia is on the way to becoming “a normal country… a country at peace,” with the caveat that his government could not afford to lower its guard until the process is completed.

The commitment and cautious optimism of a year ago would now appear to have been vindicated through this “democratic opening”. The Colombian government, in spite of the opposition of domestic hard-liners, has stood firm in its recognition of the need for negotiating political and social change in the interests of peace and democracy. And the rebels themselves seem finally to have come to the realisation that social justice and “real democracy” cannot be achieved through the barrel of a gun.

Dialogue, negotiation and compromise are, ultimately, indispensable components of the democratic process, no matter how intractable the situation might seem.

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