Colombian Peace Talks 
So Near and Yet So FARC

The longest-running war in the western hemisphere could soon be coming to an end

No more war: Colombian immigrants take to the streets in Madrid to protest violence. Photo by kozumel via Flickr.

No more war: Colombian immigrants take to the streets in Madrid to protest violence. Photo by kozumel via Flickr.

There is reason for hope. For the first time in a decade, the Marxist organisation FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the Colombian government have come together in Oslo, Norway for formal peace negotiations.

Since the conflict began in 1964, FARC has been an organisation of terrorism, displacement, kidnapping, drug trafficking, and forced recruitment. Yet peace may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. Many Colombians wonder whether successful negotiations will actually stop the violence, how former combatants will be received back into society, and if all FARC forces could indeed be demobilized.

After decades of violence, the Colombian people will have to be ready to receive former combatants back into society. So the most important question remains: will we be able to forgive?

The Errors of the Past

This time, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said the country would not “repeat the errors of the past”. The negotiations would have to lead to the resolution of the conflict. I am old enough to remember the most recent “error”. In 1998, then-President Andrés Pastrana ceded an area the size of Switzerland as neutral ground for negotiations. The talks made no tangible progress, eventually breaking down in 2002, and the FARC took over the territory. After this failure, we became cynical. I was born into a country at war and I didn’t hold out much hope for seeing it resolved in my lifetime.

Following this, current President Santos’ predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, decreased the FARC’s numbers from their peak of 20,000 in 2002 to the present-day 9,000. Uribe’s questionable methods became a worldwide human rights discussion. The fanaticism with which the Colombian people amended the constitution in order to re-elect him made me uneasy. Nonetheless, many chose to overlook his potential paramilitary ties in exchange for the glimpse of a future without the daily fear of violence.

Yet in spite of the FARC’s decline, both in their number and in the death of their most ruthless leaders, reaching a peace agreement will prove to be a monumental task. “People must realize that there is no hope of peace except on the [already set] limited agenda,” said Malcolm Deas, a retired Professor of Colombian Politics at the University of Oxford. The “limited agenda” for the Oslo negotiations was agreed upon earlier this year in Cuba: land reforms, the future of FARC rebels, a permanent end to hostilities, reparations and justice for victims of the conflict, and how to decrease the traffic of illicit drugs.

Yet FARC spokesman Ivan Marquez made a provocative opening statement at the current Oslo talks. He reiterated demands for the nationalisation of natural resource industries and the overturning of free-trade agreements. The most outrageous claim, though, was the denial of the FARC’s involvement in any human rights violations such as kidnapping, murder and bombings.

The speech, although upsetting, was also predictable. The Economist Intelligence Unit noted that the remarks were “a strategy to show strength at the bargaining table,” and forecasted that the negotiations convey some “risks to political stability, and that it is unlikely that a complete end to the conflict will be achieved”. In reality, no one on the ground is expecting a complete end to the conflict, just a beginning to the end.

What would peace look like?

Demobilisation, even if things go well, is a slow and tricky process. We went through it with the paramilitary forces during the Uribe government, after which many of them went back to their violent pasts. “Experience shows that demobilizations can increase crime,” Professor Deas said. Moreover, the country’s root problems persist: poverty, no access to education, and one of the highest rates of economic inequality in the world.

“There is a limit to the extent that the needs of the demobilized can be privileged,” said Deas. “And the fact, much ignored by those who insist on seeing the FARC as an agrarian movement, [is] that most [guerrilleros] probably don’t want to be campesinos [farmers].”

According to a Human Rights Watch report, approximately 20% to 30% of those recruited are minors, most of who are forced to join the FARC. Balancing how well we treat the leaders of the movement with as those who were forced into it is the possible key to achieving and maintaining peace.

But can I picture a former FARC rebel being accepted into one of the country’s few universities? Leaving his or her profitable drug business? Competing against my privileged friends for jobs in Bogota?  My honest answer is no. I don’t see why they would be treated any differently than the many other uneducated, unskilled campesinos they have displaced.

But as Colombians, we need to try. Forgiveness is the essential measure we must undertake post-negotiations as our main contribution to the success of this peace process. We, who have been enduring bombs and threats for most, if not all, of our lives, will need to be forgiving in order not to marginalize former rebels so they do not feel the need to take up arms again.

“They say, ‘What if Timochenko [the main FARC leader] gets elected to Congress?’” said ex-President Pastrana to the New York Times. “I hope he gets elected to Congress. If we are not willing to forgive, the peace process is going to be a failure.”

In the end, the FARC need to be heard in the political process. They need to have their voice represented in the Senate and the ability to participate in political discourse so they know that there is an alternative to violence. For that to happen, we, as citizens, must be willing to let the pains of the past go. After civil war, civility needs to come from both sides.