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The Colombia Peace Dialogues

Once More Into the Breach



It’s hard to know which is more surprising: a guerrilla that has resisted for more than 50 years, constituting the largest farmers’ movement in the hemisphere according to the late Eric Hobsbawm; an oligarchical government that has so little sense of sovereignty that in extradites political prisoners to the country of its northern bosses; or the fact that the two parties sit down to dialogue, as is now happening in Cuba between representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) and the government of Juan Manual Santos.

In fact, only in Macondo can such things come to pass. Yet it’s important to evaluate the degree of magic and the degree of realism in each one of them. Regarding the first two elements (that is, the 50-year guerrilla and the extravagantly servile government) they are, if astounding and “magical,” quite real. It is the last element, however, the dialogue between the two parts, that tends toward the phantasmal.

Not that the guerrilla does not want peace: the FARC-EP maintains – and recent declarations have corroborated this – that it has long fought for peace, a peace with social justice, and has always been willing to dialogue with that principle as the basis. The Colombian government, however, seems more interested in image-mongering and at present appears only committed to doing lip-service to peace.

Thus, in the preliminary talks in Oslo last month, government negotiator Humberto de la Calle responded to the soft-spoken and content-rich presentation of FARC comandante Iván Márquez by saying that they were not going to listen to speeches of the public plaza (nixing outright the basis of Greek democracy: the agora); that they could not debate the country’s economic model (difficult to understand since the issue of land reform was in the pre-agreement); and that the government was not going to be “hostage to the process” (by which he meant that they were not going to be “hostage” to democratic procedures).

This last point is the most important and telling one. Colombia, like its northern boss-state (the USA) has polished a highly restricted form of democracy which includes manipulated voting and parapolitical practices such as assassination of opponents, which prevent any substantialissue from entering into democratic decision-making. Steps taken by recent Colombian governments – including those of both Álvaro Uribe and J.M. Santos – have only worked to further restrict democracy, assigning more and more rights to big (and usually foreign) businesses and fewer rights to citizens. [1]

Given this situation, it would only be structural changes in the society, state, and economy that would open the doors to a real and lasting peace by going to the roots of the conflict. Such changes, which would have to include eliminating the U.S. military presence, agrarian reform, and recompense to victims of state terrorism, might seem “magical” and far-fetched given the track record of Colombian governments, but only they would guarantee that the conflict would not re-initiate for the same reasons it started, while providing a basis for the insurgency to enter into parliamentary and presidential politics.

It is clear that the insurgency should not put down its arms without achieving these objectives, because even if it were to do so, for the people of Colombia – mostly without land and access to adequate health care and education – the struggle (and the violence) would continue, though likely with a more unilateral exercise of violence from the Colombian State.

Can one imagine the Colombian state making such structural changes? It will only if it has to: that is, only when it recognizes that the war will not end without such concessions, and that a failure to yield will make the state more precarious; only when there is much international pressure; and above all only when a wide sector of Colombian “civil society” and its powerful organizations such as Marcha Patriótica and Congreso de los Pueblos can weigh into the dialogues.

All of which takes time. And it takes a dialogue which would – as FARC negotiators have proposed [2] – reach far beyond the sweep of the “summit” sort of meetings that have so far taken place. For some indication of whether this possible opening to a different (less Macondian) chapter of Colombian history could come to pass, one should pay close attention to the new round of dialogues that will begin this November 15th in La Habana and focus on the theme of land reform.

Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.


[1] Jairo Estrada Alvarez, Derechos del Capital: Dispositivos de protección e incentivos a la acumulación en Colombia (Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2010).

[2]  Delegación de Paz de las FARC-EP, “Reflexiones sobre la Agenda de La Habana III”: http://www.rebelion.org/noticia.php?id=158686&titular=reflexiones-sobre-la-agenda-de-la-habana-iii