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“In every conflict there is always room for negotiation”

There is no rule saying that some conflicts have no solution. The dynamics, the interests and the timings keep on changing and opening up possibilities for resolving them. Interview. Español

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, hands the pen to commander of the FARC Rodrigo Londono, right, as world leaders look on during a signing ceremony September 26, 2016 in Cartagena, Colombia. Presidenciamx/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Manuel Serrano: please allow me to put it bluntly. Where is Latin America heading to?

Mariano Aguirre: There are five ongoing processes in Latin America. The first is the question of corruption, which is currently at its peak in Brazil.

The second is the civil rights question, which is highlighted by the demands of the indigenous movements in the Andean zone and the Afro-Colombians, and which is also present in the debate on the so-called “two-for-one” policy (the Argentine Supreme Court of Justice ruling according to which detention time before trial, even in cases of crimes against humanity, is to be counted double) and Macri’s government stand on immigration, which criminalizes immigrants and considers them “undesirable”, thus deteriorating the country’s democratic system.

The great challenge for the coming years will be the implementation of the Havana agreement and the deployment of the Colombian state in areas of the country where, so far, it does not exist.

The third is the peace process in Colombia: the agreement reached with the FARC and the ongoing negotiations with the ELN. These two factors can put an end to a 50-year cycle of violence and to the insurrectional model of bringing about social change through force. The great challenge for the coming years will be the implementation of the Havana agreement and the deployment of the Colombian state in areas of the country where, so far, it does not exist.

The fourth process is the one which is currently taking place in Venezuela. Contrary to what some analysts are saying - and celebrating -, what is going on in Venezuela does not entail the end of populist governments, or governments with strong social policy agendas. Both will, sooner or later, re-emerge in Latin America. But Venezuela is a case in itself. If a negotiated agreement is not reached, violence could escalate and turn the current political stalemate into the most serious crisis in the region.

Venezuela is a case in itself. If a negotiated agreement is not reached, violence could escalate and turn the current political stalemate into the most serious crisis in the region.

The fifth process is the ongoing violence in Mexico and Central America. Violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala is deep and serious, and it is related to inequality, poverty and racism. In the case of Mexico, however, it has to do with an explosive formula: a crisis of the state system in addition to deep social inequalities, the inability to control violence, partly because of corruption, the diversification of the drug trade, the border with the United States, and arms and human trafficking. All this factors combined have resulted in a violent, unconventional conflict. It is not a war, but its characteristics warrant the application of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention.

MS: Let’s talk about Venezuela: Is a negotiated way out of the current crisis possible?

MA: In every conflict, it is always possible to negotiate. In some cases, achieving some positive outcome can take months or even years. But there is no rule saying that some conflicts have no solution. Some conflicts are in a non-resolution situation - such as the Israeli-Palestinian and the Syrian ones -, but this does not mean that negotiation should not be attempted or that there is no prospect of resolution. Conflicts and international actors are not static. The dynamics, the interests and the timings keep on changing and opening up possibilities.

In every conflict, it is always possible to negotiate. There is no rule saying that some conflicts have no solution.

MS: Colombia is an example of successful negotiations. What factors have contributed to their success?

MA: I believe that several factors have been at play here. First, the fact that the parties in conflict were willing to negotiate. Second, the role of the facilitators - Norway and Cuba – who did not try to impose their criteria, but provided a safe space, as Cuba did, and helped from the margins, as Norway did, with the utmost respect for the actors, so as to let them come to an agreement. Discretion over the negotiations was also essential. Contrary to what happened more than a decade ago with the Caguán peace process, the Colombian government and the FARC were, in general, very careful to respect confidentiality while they were negotiating. The messages that came out of the Havana talks were thought through and through and agreed upon. There were not two scenarios: the negotiation table on the one hand and a media space on the other.

Another very important factor was the contribution, through consultations and invitations to meetings in Havana, of civil society members and victims’ representatives. The presence of the victims is innovative: it is the very first time that victims have had a say in a peace negotiation.

Finally, both parties had a specific interest in negotiating. For the government of Santos and his team, and also for a fair part of Colombian society, what the negotiations involved was the modernization of the Colombian state: they meant progress towards a country needing to be modern, needing to be at peace, and needing to be able to work with other countries in the world. Colombia needs to stop being a country at war in order to be democratically stable. The FARC, on the other hand, had suffered heavy losses in recent years but remained operational, so they faced the possibility of continuing the war. But the new generation of FARC leaders, under the influence of the late President Chávez and possibly on the suggestion of the Cuban government, understood that in Latin America, today and in the future, the option for social change is not something that can be achieved through an armed struggle, but through integration into political, democratic, civilian and peaceful life.

The presence of the victims is innovative: it is the very first time that victims have had a say in a peace negotiation.

MS: What are the immediate challenges after the peace agreement?

MA: There are two phases. The first phase – implementation of the peace agreement -, despite some delays and understandable problems, is being carried out with considerable success. Over the last months, the objective has been the demobilization and disarmament of the FARC and the social integration of the former guerrilla fighters, through a tripartite mechanism overseen by the United Nations, the Colombian armed forces and a FARC group specially instructed and authorized for this mission. This is, of course, a key phase. Not only because disarmament is obviously a major issue, but because the state has to guarantee over a long period of time the security of the members of the FARC so as to let them to undertake their process of economic, political and social integration. The second phase, which a second UN mission will be involved in, constitutes an even greater challenge, for it has to address and implement some key issues contained in the agreement that has been signed: rural development, illicit crop substitution, transitional justice, political participation of the FARC and security for citizens of all political creeds.

MS. Is the Colombian state prepared for carrying out these tasks?

MA: The issues mentioned will be a test to see if the Colombian state – which, on the one hand, quite sophisticated and paradoxically, on the other, is unable to reach some parts of the country it is supposed to govern - can comply with what it has signed. Implementing the Peace Agreement presupposes, to a large extent, the building of the state. All sectors of society, together with the United Nations agencies, the political mission, and international donors, will have to cooperate in order to leave behind the armed conflict, stabilize the country democratically, and create a sustainable peace which can work as a mechanism preventing any relapse into war. For the FARC, the great challenge will be its integration into the political life of the country and change from being a hierarchical armed organization to become a political organization operating within a democratic framework. In addition to these challenges, the state will have to fight against the paramilitaries and the armed groups linked to drug trafficking which are currently killing social leaders and attacking the Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.

Trump has been elected president as a result of a structural crisis in the US.

MS: You have recently published Salto al vacío (Icaria Editorial, in Spanish), a book on the political crisis in the United States, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. What is your thesis?

MA: Trump has been elected president as a result of a structural crisis in the US. The book analyzes the existing economic fractures, especially in the field of inequality, the infrastructure crisis, the huge and inefficient bureaucracy, and an oversized military apparatus which has gone from failure to failure since the Vietnam War.

The book deals also with the fracture of identities: between whites and African-Americans, between a sector of white society and the so-called Latinos, internal fractures between several marginalized social sectors, and between women who have been advancing in society and the reaction against these advances. I analyze the question of identity in some depth. This was one of the causes that led Hillary Clinton’s defeat at the polls: white men and women who have been losing their jobs in the last two decades due to deindustrialization and offshoring – a large sector of society which has been marginalized and is protesting against policies aimed at defending other identities (women, gays and lesbians and transsexuals, African Americans).

Despite being a rich man himself, he is not part of the elite. He is a second-rate entrepreneur from Queens who had been trying to conquer Manhattan for decades, and jump from there to Washington.

All of this and the religious factor – the political weight of the radicalized Evangelicals - have resulted in Trump being elected. He has successfully taken advantage of his highly mediatized, popular, anti-intellectual figure with a discourse targeting the elites. Despite being a rich man himself, he is not part of the elite. He is a second-rate entrepreneur from Queens who had been trying to conquer Manhattan for decades, and jump from there to Washington. To do so, he built a discourse that resonated with some of the marginalized sectors of US society. His almost melancholic proposal is to return to a past which the country will hardly be able to go back to, and this has found an echo among voters who feel uneasy before the uncertainties of the future. What Trump has bluntly put forth - and keeps on putting forth – is a coming back home, a coming back to a deeply-missed and longed for, though mythical, "America First", offering simple solutions to complex problems.

This interview was conducted on May 19th in Lisbon, at the conference "Beyond Borders: people, spaces, ideas” organized by the Autonomous University of Lisbon.  

About the authors

Mariano Aguirre is an international policy analyst, and was director of NOREF (Norwegian Center for Conflict Resolution) from 2009 to 2016, where he is now senior advisor. Previously, he worked at various research centers and at the Ford Foundation in New York. He recently published Salto al Vacío, a book about the crisis unfolding in the United States.

Mariano Aguirre es analista de política internacional, y fue director de NOREF (Centro Noruego para la Resolución de Conflictos) desde 2009 a 2016, centro en el que ahora es senior advisor. Antes trabajé en diversos centros de investigación y en la Fundación Ford en Nueva York. Recientemente ha publicado Salto al Vacío, un libro sobre la crisis que se vive en Estados Unidos.

Manuel Serrano holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from ESADE Business and Law School and a Master degree in International Relations from the Barcelona Institute for International Studies (IBEI). He is an international affairs analyst, journalist and editor. He worked as Junior Editor at openDemocracy (2015-2017) and currently is freelance correspondent in Lisbon.

Manuel Serrano es licenciado en Derecho por la ESADE Business and Law School y Máster en Relaciones Internacionales por el Instituto Barcelona de Estudios Internacionales (IBEI). Es analista político, periodista e editor. Trabajó como Editor Asistente en openDemocracy (2015-2017) y actualmente es corresponsal freelance en Lisboa.

Manuel Serrano é licenciado em Direito pela ESADE Business and Law School e completou o Mestrado em Relações Internacionais no Instituto Barcelona de Estudos Internacionais (IBEI). É analista político, jornalista e editor. Trabalhou como Editor Júnior na openDemocracy (2015-2017) e actualmente é correspondente freelance em Lisboa.


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