Armed conflict between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government, ongoing for 50 years, apparently will be ending soon. Every indication is that the two sides are close to reaching a peace agreement after more than three years of negotiating. For Colombia to be free of killings, militarization, judicial shams, and wholesale violence would be real change. But once arms are put down and former guerrillas are integrated into civilian life, what prospects are there for Colombian politics to be changed in equal measure?
Parenthetically it should be noted that even with a FARC – government peace agreement, armed conflict will remain. The leftist National Liberation Army (ELN), smaller than the FARC, is still in the field. That insurgency is apparently not yet negotiating with the government, at least openly.
Throughout its existence, that FARC has held up peace with social justice as its ultimate objective. Societal change, of course, wasn’t on the agenda of the peace talks. Consequently, FARC negotiators have been calling for political mobilization generally and in particular a constituent assembly to endorse any peace agreement and to begin a process of restructuring Colombian politics.
In a statement on January 17, for example, FARC peace delegation member Julián Subverso promised that, “The struggle will continue, now without weapons. … With the final peace agreement, we will mobilize to do, open and legally, what we have always done: politics to transform an unjust and oppressive system.”
Recent governmental actions, however, suggest that the FARC’s resolve and even aspirations of Colombia’s broader progressive movement won’t go far in a political process dominated then and now by Colombia’s wealthy elite. With peace will come a testing.
Colombia’s old guard asserted itself, for example, on January 13. That day President Juan Manuel Santos’ government auctioned off the state’s 57.6 percent interest in the Isagen power company to Brookside Asset Management of Canada. The supposed reason for the sale, facilitated by ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, was to provide funding for highway construction. The left’s feeble showings in the March 2014 parliamentary elections, repeated in local elections in October, 2015, assured congressional resistance to this action and others would be minimal.
Brookside, with assets worth $225 billion, with 28,000 employees in 20 countries, paid $1.9 billion for Medellin-based Isagen, operator of Colombia’s largest hydroelectric plant and supplier of 20 percent of Colombia’s electricity. In this “largest privatization in the country in nearly a decade,” the government achieved its minimum selling price – no more. Brookside, the sole bidder, places Isagen’s value at $2.2 billion. The mega corporation has assets in “property, renewable energy, infrastructure and private equity,” half of them in the United States.
The left leaning USO oil-workers union is predicting that state – owned Ecopetrol corporation is next on the list for privatization. And newly elected right-wing Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa has revived a campaign to privatize the city-owned ETB telephone company. He would also like to sell off Empresa de Aqueducto, the state – owned water company.
A month prior to the Isagen sale, Colombia’s Congress approved Law 223, which establishes “Zones of Interest for Rural, Economic and Social Development” (ZIDRES). Head FARC negotiator Iván Márquez castigated ZIDRES as a “crafty stab wound” to a partial agreement negotiators had reached on agrarian reform, their first agenda item. The FARC came into existence in 1964 precisely because small farmers and rural inhabitants were being oppressed.
The government says that ZIDRES will “[c]reate special lines of credit and action plans to raise bank funding for productive projects…” The agricultural minister regards ZIDRES as a “sort of free trade zone for agriculture.” The law modifies a 1994 agrarian reform law that authorized transfer of land declared as idle to “family-sized agricultural units,” and only to them. The 1994 law didn’t apply to land that earlier agrarian reform laws had declared as idle. Providing for “perpetually-renewable leases,” Law 223 opens up that previously protected terrain to concentration of land for industrial agricultural purposes.
Oxfam opposes ZIDRES “because it works against … small-scale agricultural production and would legalize irregular accumulation of land for both people and businesses, [and] increase the inequality Colombia suffers from today.” The law’s reach is immense, another critic pointed out: “It’s a matter of handing over all of Orinoquia, part of Magdalena Medio, part of Pacífico, part of Amazonia, and part of Catatumbo [departments] to companies producing bio-fuels.”
Other measures are newly in place that will end up subjecting ordinary Colombians to harassment. They will be paying a 19 percent sales tax, up from 16 percent, and a recent increase in the minimum wage doesn’t match rising inflation.
The sell-offs in particular are provoking dissent. The Agrarian Summit recently issued an open letter to President Santos calling him to account on many issues and implicitly threatening him with a strike by agricultural workers and small farmers. The Summit had been formed by agrarian rights organizations shortly after their nationwide strike in 2013.
In the same vein, a writer for prensarural.org warned that the government’s actions have “created the right conditions for a national strike.” Demonstrations took place throughout the country on January 24 “against the privatization of Isagen, low wages, and health care and education cuts.”
Struggle for political power on behalf of the people’s interest inevitably will be continuing in a post-conflict Colombia. But obstacles are considerable and the hand of the U. S. government hand will be resting on the balance of forces. Weighing heavily are seven U.S. military bases and U. S. military personnel in Colombia, almost $9 billion in military support over 15 years under Plan Colombia, and the U. S. position as Colombia’s leading trade partner.
Former U.S. diplomat Bernard Aronson’s participation in the peace talks as a “special envoy” symbolizes U. S. concerns over post-conflict arrangements. A Washington Post reporter who spoke with him portrays Aronson as reassuring negotiators on both sides “that the United States, having funded one side of the war, is prepared to help fund the peace for both.” She quotes Aronson as saying, “the United States is going to be supportive of the implementation, just as we have been in other post-conflict settlements.” Aronson is apparently resurrecting outcomes in those instances as models now for Colombia’s evolution.
Aronson himself participated in the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan peace processes. The Salvadoran settlement in 1992 enabled leftist insurgents to enter regular politics. Although their political party, the FMLN, went on to hold power, El Salvador is stuck with great wealth inequalities, deadly violence, and exploitative natural resources extraction.
It could have been exactly such a scenario that prompted FARC guerrilla Ronald Guerrero to tell an interviewer in 2008 that, “We don’t want a pax Romana (i. e. peace achieved through hegemony) … We want a democratic and socialist government and land for those who work it.” Similarly Fidel Castro once remarked that, “I will never support the pax Romana that the [US] empire tries to impose on Latin America.” Undoubtedly Bernard Aronson is doing his bit in fulfillment of that very project.