Peace Talks Begin in Colombia

by DANIEL KOVALIK

According to Colombia’s El Tiempo, 75% of Colombians want a dialogue between the Colombian government and the guerillas.    And, this stands to reason, for Colombia has been devastated by over 50 years of armed conflict which has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians (between 50 and 250 thousand of whom were “disappeared”); left over 5 million persons internally displaced (the largest IDP population in the world); and given a pretext for the Colombian government, with the aid of its paramilitary allies, to wipe out progressive organizations, including trade unions, working for social change.  On a grander scale, the Colombian conflict has provided a convenient pretext for U.S. military intervention in that country and the entire region and has been the biggest hurdle to the dream of Latin American integration.

It is therefore welcome and monumental news that the Colombian government yesterday confirmed rumors that it has signed an agreement with the largest guerilla group, the FARC, to commence peace talks, and that it shall include the ELN guerillas in this peace process as well.

Experience has shown that such peace talks are fragile.    Colombia has gone through a number of peace processes, but they have all ended badly thus far.   The most notable failed peace process took place in the 1980’s when the FARC agreed to end the armed insurgency in return for being able to participate in Colombian political life through the Patriotic Union party (UP).   In a great act of treachery, the Colombian military and paramilitary death squads responded to this deal by murdering around 5,000 UP leaders and activists, and the FARC commenced hostilities anew.

Meanwhile, as The Miami Herald reports this morning, both sides of the conflict have made it clear that they will not cease armed conflict during the peace talks; on the contrary, battles between the guerillas and the Colombian military and police have increased in recent months.   More troubling, the main non-violent group calling for peace talks – the Patriotic March – has been increasingly vilified by the Colombian government (quite untruthfully) as FARC supporters, and a number of Patriotic March leaders have been threatened, jailed, killed or disappeared with increasing frequency.   And, just as these peace talks have commenced, and as such attacks against peace activists have escalated, the Colombian government has cut in half the support for the beneficiaries of its government protection program – a program which purports to protect peace and social activists from these very attacks.  In short, there are many reasons to be very cautious in our optimism for these talks.

At the same time, there are reasons for hope.   For its part, the FARC took an important step in the direction of peace earlier this year by renouncing its long-time practice of kidnapping (a tactic of raising money through ransom).   As for the Colombian government, President Santos has exhibited much more openness to peace talks than his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, and has been much more moderate in his rhetoric about the guerillas and about the Colombian non-violent left as well.   Santos has even begun a land reform program which purports to give back land to Colombians (particularly those of the indigenous and Afro-Colombian community) whose land was seized unlawfully during the conflict.   While it remains to be seen how successful this program will be, and while the program itself has inspired paramilitary groups to violently attack those standing to take back land that the paramilitaries wrongfully seized during the conflict, the overture is an important one for the guerillas whose primary demand over the decades has been meaningful land reform.   Finally, the accelerated growth of the peace movement in Colombia, most notably through the establishment of the Patriotic March, will add critical support to these talks.

As usual, the important wild card is the United States – the financial backer of the Colombian military and the author of Colombia’s anti-insurgency program beginning in 1962.   The only way that the peace process will be successful is for the U.S. to support the process, or, at the very least, get out of the way to allow it to go forward and prosper.   So far, the U.S. has shown no willingness to support peace in Colombia, instead opting to exploit the conflict to retain its last military beachhead in the Latin American region – a region which, much to the chagrin of the U.S., is increasingly radicalizing and turning leftward.   A key factor in the peace process, then, is a strong movement of citizens in the U.S. who will support peaceful actors, such as the Patriotic March, in Colombia, and put political pressure on the U.S. government to allow peace to flourish in Colombia.   This is a momentous opportunity for President Obama to finally earn his Nobel Peace Prize (3 years after the fact) and we must encourage him to seize upon this opportunity.

As a final note, the Cuban government must again be applauded for playing its positive role in this process.   As it has in the past, Cuba hosted the initial talks which led to the commencement of this peace process, and, along with Norway, will continue to host such talks throughout the process.   This tiny island, much vilified by our government, continues to play its positive role in our hemisphere for peace, regional stability and public health.   The shamefulness of the U.S.’s continued blockade of that country grows each day as Cuba outshines the U.S. in terms of its contributions to the world.

Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights attorney living in Pittsburgh and teaches International Human Rights Law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

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