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Imperialists’ Colombian Allies Dodge a Bullet: Peace Talks Stall as Government Asserts Ruling-Class Priorities

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November 2015 marked completion of the third year of talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The two sides are trying to end a brutal civil lasting half a century. Colombia’s majority population has lived through disaster, both humanitarian and political. Violence has taken 200,000 lives, displaced six million rural people from their land, and fostered fear and repression affecting tens of thousands.

The U. S. government, accustomed since the Eisenhower administration to assisting the Colombian military with funding, equipment, and personnel, has a stake in the outcome. Taking on leftist guerrillas in Colombia under a drug – war façade, the U. S. military has tolerated or directly supported Colombian paramilitaries, violators of human rights on a vast scale.

FARC negotiators insist their fight for social justice will continue even after a peace settlement. Now the Colombian government has apparently gained the upper hand in shaping any agreement that emerges.

Negotiators in Havana, Cuba so far have achieved “partial agreements” on agrarian reform, insurgents’ future political participation, and remedies for illegal drug trafficking. They’ve not dealt with the point on “End of the Conflict,” number three on their six-point agenda, or with “Implementation, Verification and Endorsement” – the sixth item. Point five, designated as “Victims” and under discussion since June 2014, has been a sticking point.

It remains so despite hopes raised on September 23, 201 when Colombian President Juan Manual Santos and FARC top leader Timochenko traveled to Havana to sign an agreement on “a Special Jurisdiction for Peace,” seen as dealing with the “Victims” problem. The New York Times announced, “Colombia Nears a Peace deal with FARC Rebels.” Santos indicated “Peace is near;” Timochenko, “Peace has arrived.” The two leaders set a March 23, 2016 deadline for signing an agreement on a complete peace package.

News reports summarized contents of the agreement. There would be a “Commission for Truth, Coexistence and Non Repetition,” a “Special Jurisdiction for Peace” with” Justice Chambers and a Peace Court,” an end to impunity, establishment of the truth, reparations for victims, “the widest possible amnesty,” and “restriction of liberty under special conditions” for offenders on both sides. Sentences would last from five to eight years. Combatants would relinquish arms 60 days after the signing of a final agreement.

But all was not well. Controversy persisted over some of the 75 provisions making up the agreement. Yet the government insists that the whole package not be divulged, much to the consternation of FARC negotiators. They want precision on potential prison terms and on banning extraditions.

A six-lawyer “judicial sub commission,” with three on each side, had devised the 75 provisions and delivered them to the negotiators. Now the government wants the sub commission to return and finish its work. FARC negotiators are refusing.

And FARC negotiators object to new activity in the Colombian Congress relating to the peace process that President Santos has encouraged. Both houses of the Congress are well along in their consideration of a “Legislative Act for Peace.” The proposal calls for “constitutional reform” that would facilitate implementation of an eventual [peace] agreement, a “special Legislative Commission for Peace,” and a “fund for investing in peace.” The Congress intends these as support for “judicial instruments” mentioned in the September 23 agreement on implementing transitional justice.

Lead FARC negotiator Iván Márquez will have none of this. “What we must do first,” he declared on November 4, “is to close the ill-conceived road of unilateral decisions taken on themes that should be agreed to by both parties.” Until this divide is bridged, commented analyst Jairo Estrada Álvarez in a widely circulated article, “the clock will be stopped.” That’s the clock measuring time still remaining ahead of the recently announced March 23 deadline.

Meanwhile, government instigation of a plebiscite the Colombian people would use to endorse – or not – any final agreement looms as a great worry for the FARC. The insurgency has long envisioned a constituent assembly for that role. Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo recently urged the Congress, dominated by Santos forces, to pass enabling legislation.

This would be a mistake, claims Jairo Estrada Álvarez. State implementation of any agreement requires “commitment on the part of … all public powers, including the military forces and police.” Without that, there will be no “political and social legitimacy, nor will the agreement acquire judicial power.” He thinks “giving free rein to a constituent [assembly] process” would accomplish that end.

Furthermore, little is happening on the ground in Colombia offering encouragement to FARC negotiators in Havana. To further a climate of peace, the FARC has instituted six unilateral cease fires since the talks began. The one in force now started in July 2015. Yet the official response has been nil; national military forces are still carrying out missions.

In the same vein, a member of a peace delegation visiting in Havana recently told FARC negotiators not only about “an increase in military actions against the guerrillas, but also the growth of paramilitary units.” Senator Iván Cepeda, part of that delegation, cited “evidence that … paramilitarism is being prepared for the post-conflict period.” As a reflection of paramilitary activities, 69 human rights defenders died violent deaths in the first eight months of 2015, according to the United Nations representative in Colombia. The total for all of 2014 was 35.

Beginning on November 9, “thousands of political prisoners in three prisons began a campaign of resistance and hunger strikes.” Their complaints centered on torture, cruel treatment in general, and lack of medical attention to life-threatening medical conditions. At the end of six days, 1500 “political prisoners of war” in 16 prisons were carrying out “peaceful protests and hunger strikes.” Spokespersons, referring to the peace talks, demanded that “Our comrades in a grave state of health … be released as a reciprocal gesture of peace.”

Communicating with President Santos on November 19, the National Business Council expressed entrepreneurs’ dissent regarding the talks. For them, “negotiation must be asymmetric in favor of the government where the institutional legitimacy of the country reposes.” And they held up a “guarantee of due process and legitimate defense for legal proprietors of land” as a non-negotiable “red line.” They objected to ideas of “re-founding the country and to a “high level judicial mechanism” outside the constitution for dealing with “serious crimes.” In fact, according to historian Renán Vega Cantor in a recent interview, “the industrialists, landowners, and ranchers” offering such complaints, and others, “have sponsored paramilitary groups for the last 30 years,”

In referring to a “stalemate in the talks,” Vega Cantor cites “the background of a media campaign … throughout the talks that advances the idea that this peace process … is set up to secure the unconditional surrender of the insurgency and acceptance of prison terms.”

Considering everything, therefore, one concludes that prospects for peace in Colombia with social justice, as sought by the FARC, have worsened. Leftist observer Horacio Duque thinks they were never good.

“The government of Mr. Santos,” he points out, “has never renounced its purpose of imposing a neo-liberal peace, one serving its model of capitalist accumulation associated with the extraction of minerals, agro-business, financial speculation, and appropriation of income from drug-trafficking.” The government saw the peace talks, he claims, as a means for fixing “economic stagnation” and “political domination in danger from judicial collapse, corruption, health care in shambles and other manifestations of poverty and unemployment.”

Duque lauds the “delegation of the revolutionary peasant resistance” for its “presence at the negotiating table in the context of sharp class struggle.” He laments “the [government’s] clear intention to block the force of constituent power and organization of a sovereign constituent assembly that might legitimize and protect the building of peace.” Duque condemns the zeal of government forces “in seeking approval of legislation that would hand over peace to the decadent, corrupt political caste [in charge] of legislating.”

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

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