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Colombian Government Peace Talks Slow, Drastically

The Momentum of FARC

by W.T WHITNEY, Jr.

Negotiations in Havana to end 50 years of armed conflict between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have continued for eighteen months. Promoting the talks, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos saw military expenses rising and investors reluctant because of violence. Neither party remained confident of military victory.  But talks now are in trouble.

After reaching partial agreements on agrarian reform and political participation, negotiators tackled drug – trafficking.  On May 4 after talking for five months, they recessed without reaching an agreement. Remaining agenda items are: care for victims, disarmament, and implementation of peace.

FARC negotiator Fidel Rondón told an interviewer recently that drug-trafficking was “the nodal point of the Colombian economy.” Discussion had become “uncomfortable to the present economic model, previous governments, the financial sector, and industry. [Yet] we have to deal with it, the state from a perspective of being led and protected by international policies to which it is committed and ourselves from the more progressive viewpoint of looking at problems of consumption and of coca leaf production in which small farmers are very involved.”

Asked about “the FARC’s participation in the drug trafficking chain,” Rondón explained that, “The FARC’s sin was to share space with small farmers and exist in areas where illegal cultivations predominate. We impose a tax on all big capital circulating through our regions in order to develop the struggle for peace in Colombia.”

The interviewer’s reference to “U.S. participation at the table for dealing with the theme of illicit drugs” prompted colleague Andrés París to observe that, “Drug war is an integral part of how narco-trafficking works; it’s the link between North Americans arms sales to Colombia and equipping the Armed Forces. And there are the chemicals supplies for processing these drugs that also are North American.”

Speaking to reporters on May 4, FARC, Iván Márquez, head of the negotiating team, elaborated upon the U.S. role. He condemned a recent statement by Colombia’s Ambassador in the United States Luis Carlos Villegas who, referring to FARC leaders, stipulated that with peace, “Colombia will not abandon certain tools such as extradition which could serve an instrument to ensure the non-repetition of crimes by the FARC.”

For Márquez, “this kind of unfortunate statement, far from contributing to the peace we all want, sounds like blackmail, which is unacceptable.” Responsibility for drug trafficking is shared: “[T]he production and marketing of illicit drugs has been permeating the whole country for decades, starting with the oligarchy’s links to finance capital. That sector is so powerful today, among other reasons, because of money laundering from drug sales and other not so holy businesses. Drug trafficking is a transnational, capitalist business, which has penetrated institutions and the national economy … [I]t has nurtured the scourge of narco-paramilitarism, which has caused so much damage, especially to the poor.”

Impasse on victims

The next agenda item, which deals with victims, is problematic for FARC negotiators.  Rondón explained that, “We want the whole weight of responsibility to be borne by both the establishment and the insurgency … We ask for creation of a commission to clarify the conflict and move beyond the government’s version centering on the last three or four decades. There needs to be a discussion of responsibility for the state’s war against the people going back to 1936, particularly of participation by the political parties and the Catholic Church.”

París reiterated a warning from Iván Márquez “that without such a commission, it will be difficult to begin the point of discussion. The government starts out on each of the six agenda points as if we were an insurgent state having to respond to the country.” In fact, “we are victims because the guerrillas came into being because of state violence … The government wants to turn the negotiations in Havana into a Nuremburg tribunal that would put guerrillas on trial.  We have to say the truth here: he who began the conflict has the major responsibility for this ominous 50 – year era.  If there is no advance on forming this commission, the talks will end.

París continued: “We successfully advanced on three points because we arrived at agreements with the government and we said we will sign partial agreements. We leave disagreements for afterwards. On this matter of victims, it’s quite difficult. We would be agreeing with a government that … puts us in the national and international public pillory for being responsible for more that 600,000 Colombians disappeared and dead in this long conflict.  … And they want to make us responsible for the internal displacement of millions of Colombians …We who are among the victims accuse the Colombian political regime.

Away from the negotiating table

On April 30 a FARC statement from Colombia took newly appointed army commander-in-chief Juan Pablo Rodríguez to task for saying that that peace in Colombia will come only with the FARC’s complete military defeat. That, according to the statement, is an “authentic declaration of war … True peace is not victory, but is social justice and democracy for all Colombians.”

The U.S. Army joined the dialogue when on March 27, 2014 a visiting General John F. Kelly, head of the U.S. Southern Command, told reporters that, “We are doing everything we can to help the people and the Armed Forces of Colombia … “[T]he rebels are up against the ropes, almost defeated, and as we say in the United States, we don’t want to take our eyes off the ball.” The U.S. State Department continues to offer a $5 million reward for help in capturing top FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez.

On May 6 Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre’s revealed that emails of the FARC negotiating team and those of Cuban journalists and President Santos himself  had been intercepted. He later indicated the hacker had “sold the information obtained illegally to particular people and also to sectors of the public [security] force. Political groups are involved with this action against the peace process.”

Elections and peace negotiations

The outcome of presidential elections May 25 has implications for the outcome of negotiations.. President Santos, running for re-election, supports the peace process.  Alvaro Uribe, Santos’ predecessor as president, has propelled opposition to the talks. His protégée Oscar Iván Zuluaga, candidate of the conservative Democratic Center Party, is gaining ground on Santos.

Four weeks before the voting, a crucial poll indicated that 27 percent of potential voters prefer Santos; 19 percent of them favor Zuluaga. As to the predicted outcome of a likely second round of voting, the two candidates are separated by two points.

The Zuluaga campaign and high military commanders are demanding pre-conditions for further negotiations and major FARC concessions, according to analyst Humberto Vélez. They think “military defeat of the guerrilla is just around the corner.” Santos suffers, he says, from “political schizophrenia.” As defense minister under Uribe he pursued war. Now “each day he orders intensified shooting while backing negotiations in Havana to stop the war.”

Recent Datexco polling data places “the end of internal armed conflict in sixth place among the electorate’s concerns; unemployment and security are more pressing.” Polling accuracy is questionable because almost 60 percent of adult Colombians do not vote, and polling reaches relatively few rural residents.

FARC prospects

In their interview, Rondón and París expressed optimism even though, in the end, no agreements are reached “that would change the economic, political, and social lives of the Colombian people.” Rondón indicated that, “The advance of the revolutionary process, the clandestine communist Party, and the guerrilla forces is notable, so much so that we will be able to root out the establishment’s political solutions.” “The FARC is not just men under arms,” he added; “We are present in struggles of workers, small farmers, young people, women, and Afro-Colombians.”

Presently, however, “Realities in Colombia still justify armed struggle.” Rondón claimed that “our guerrilla fronts” are deployed along Colombia’s borders with Ecuador, Venezuela, and Panama, also in the “heart of the homeland.”

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.