Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Peace in Colombia: Negotiating to Move On

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On the afternoon of February 27, a bright and warm winter day in Cuba, the staff at the Hotel Nacional in Havana busily prepared for the arrival of former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was due to a give a talk to a group of business people that afternoon. Meanwhile, I was seated on a couch in the rear of the hotel, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, chatting with Sergio Jaramillo, the high commissioner for peace in Colombia.

Jaramillo is leading the government delegation to the peace talks between the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia— FARC) and the Colombian government. He told me he was reading the Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke, and that those long, difficult poems helped him remain alert. “In general, people are very self-centered,” Jaramillo said. “Here, you need to think about what the other is thinking, what the other thinks I’m thinking. It is an exercise in extrapolation that helps you think differently, helps you find common ground. It is a cliché, but it’s true.”

Jaramillo probably has the most challenging job in Colombia. Since February 2012, there has not been a single month that he hasn’t traveled to Havana to meet with representatives of the FARC.  Over the past four decades, guerrilla and paramilitary groups have kidnapped 358 mayors and 75 congressmen. In the last century, six presidential candidates have been killed while campaigning. According to the  Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica (National Center of Historical Memory—CNMH), the conflict with the FARC  has caused at least 220,000 deaths since 1958, and more than four out of five killed are estimated to be civilians. Colombian society is traumatized.  Therefore, negotiating with the FARC is a political and personal risk for everyone involved.  The situation is even more complex and sensitive because a large portion of Colombians believes that the only way to defeat the FARC and other guerrilla groups is by military force. For many, including former president Álvaro Uribe, negotiating with the guerrillas is a national betrayal. ¿Qué piensan los colombianos del proceso de paz?, a study financed by the United Nations and USAID, showed that although 58.1 percent of Colombians support a negotiated end to the conflict in 2013, 76.8 percent are skeptical that there will be a negotiated solution within a year.  A majority of Colombians also disapproves of the possibility of the FARC forming its own political party or of demobilized guerrillas participating in future elections—all possibilities being discussed in Cuba.

So how to defeat the FARC? During Uribe’s presidency, Colombia became one of Washington’s closest allies in Latin America, and received up to 8 billion dollars in U.S. aid to combat drug trafficking and guerrilla groups through Plan Colombia between 2000 and 2010. Between 2002 and 2010, the country spent around 5 percent of its GDP on defense (more than on education). Between 2002 and 2010, the homicide and kidnapping rate decreased considerably and terrorist attacks all but ceased, and the number of guerrillas fell by more than half. However, Colombia’s geographical complexity, the ease with which the guerrillas recruit new followers, and the vast sums of money the FARC raises through drug trafficking has made eliminating the guerrillas an impractical challenge, as President Juan Manuel Santos has already admitted.

If it is difficult for the government to imagine how to defeat the FARC, it is also now obvious to the FARC that seizing power through armed conflict is no longer viable either. It took Fidel Castro seven years to defeat Batista’s dictatorship. In El Salvador, the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front—FMLN) fought for ten years before reaching a negotiated peace with the government. But the FARC started to fight half a century ago and are still in the jungle, while Latin America’s political scenario has completely shifted since then.

When I met Diana Grajales, a FARC guerrilla who, at 28, was the same age as me, I realized we were both born during a period when most Latin American countries were transitioning out of dictatorships and rebuilding democracy. In Brazil, my home country, the military took control in the 60s—but three decades after the end of the dictatorship, former guerrilla Dilma Rousseff is president. Meanwhile, Colombia is still dealing with armed groups 55 years after the Cuban Revolution.  While we were seated in the hotel lobby, Grajales showed me the battle scars she has accumulated over the past eight years: a bullet scar on her fist, a mark on her left arm from an operation in which a titanium plate was implanted in her injured limb, and several smaller blemishes on her face, back and limbs. Grajales said she lost her boyfriend and her sister in armed confrontations. Like her, they were members of the FARC.

Grajales is completely committed to the FARC’s cause. If the talks in Cuba don’t succeed, she is willing to go back to the Colombian jungle to continue the fight—and it’s not impossible to imagine another 50 years of armed conflict. Yet the FARC rebels now also admire the Bolivarian governments in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia and can look to the example of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Brazil, where former guerillas have been elected president. In this context, the FARC are aware that—politically—there is no better time to demobilize and establish a leftist political party.

The FARC and Colombian government have already reached agreements on three points of the six-point peace agenda—including agrarian reform, political participation for the rebels and the illicit drug trade—but Colombians would have to endorse the final agreement, possibly through a referendum. So before discussing the post-conflict issues, such as transitional justice, punishment for crimes against humanity and congressional regulation of the agreements, the negotiated end to the war must appease all sides: the government and the FARC, as well as a skeptical and resistant citizenry.

On the way back to Brazil from Cuba, I stopped in Bogotá to write about the peace negotiations. There, I met a group of young workers who were undecided about the upcoming presidential election—later won by incumbent Juan Manuel Santos. Some of them were opposed to a peace agreement or at least did not believe it would be signed. In one girl’s opinion, it was impossible to forgive a group that had killed and kidnapped thousands of innocent civilians.

Colombia could find a peaceful future if, as Jaramillo has said, people can find common ground. Last month, for the first time, the FARC admitted the harm they have caused to civilians.  It is a small first step towards reparations for the victims they harmed. Yet for a peace agreement to be sustainable, the majority of Colombians would also have to accept that the guerrillas are negotiating to drop their arms, but not their ideals. Bertolt Brecht once wrote something similar to what Jaramillo meant: “He thought in other heads, and in his own, others besides himself thought. This is true thinking.”

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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