Colombia: real peace in an era of phony war

While a "new Condor Plan" is rumoured to be stalking the region, Colombia might need more than a sideways glance from self-absorbed neighbours in the years to come .Español

Ivan Briscoe
22 September 2016

FARC rebels cheer at the concert in their last conference as a rebel army, after signing the peace accord.18 September,2016. Ricardo Mazalan/Press Association. All rights reserved.On a rough count over the month of August, six coups were said to be under way across Latin America. Many of these were reported to be targeting the region’s recent or current left-leaning governments, elected in a spate of victories a little over a decade ago and now the alleged victims of a systematic campaign to eject them from power by any means available. “A new Condor Plan” is afoot, Ecuadorean President Rafael has declared, in reference to the regional extermination campaign against suspected subversives mounted in the 1970s. Polarized politics, frail institutions and economic hardship do not bring back happy memories.

Yet an event of great and undeniable significance sits oddly beside these half-dozen historical flashbacks. In Colombia, the longest-running guerrilla war of the region and the epitome of a Marxist uprising of rural outcasts against the metropolitan elite – in which the United States gave firm support to the latter, first during the Cold War and then in response to the insurgents’ links to drug trafficking and threats to the state ­– is on the verge of a peaceful and agreed end.

Four years of tireless negotiations in Cuba between government representatives and commanders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) ended on August 24 with the announcement of a final peace agreement, which will be signed on September 26. It is, without a doubt, one of the most sophisticated, comprehensive and well-wrought documents of its kind, a tribute to the search for compromise on both sides of what has been a pitiless conflict. “They were complicated, sometimes bitter conversations,” the government chief negotiator, Humberto de Calle, said upon announcing the accord, “but the result is sufficient compensation.” ...one of the most sophisticated, comprehensive and well-wrought documents of its kind, a tribute to the search for compromise on both sides of what has been a pitiless conflict.

Very great challenges remain, starting with a plebiscite on the deal on October 2: the hurdles ahead have been documented in a recent International Crisis Group report. But the divergence between the febrile disputes of Latin American political and diplomatic life and the moderation that old foes in Colombia achieved is striking. The temperance has been contagious: even if a new Condor Plan stalks the region, the entire hemisphere has united in support of the peace deal.

Cuba hosted the talks, and acted as a guarantor alongside Norway; Venezuela and Chile were witnesses. Not far behind, the United States sent an envoy to the negotiations, which the FARC desired. The Organization of American States (OAS), handicapped by divisions on dealing with Venezuela or other convulsed democracies, has given its unanimous backing. More than half the members of the UN Monitoring Mission in Colombia will come from Latin American countries. When it comes to real, as opposed to phony war, Latin America as a whole seems to have few takers.

READ MORE: Venezuela: the need for a comples international response.

But as talk of coup-mongering and government overthrow becomes cheap within countries and between states – Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia withdrew ambassadors and froze ties with Brazil after the ethically-impaired and elite-driven impeachment of Dilma Rousseff –, and in an era where regional blocs are crumbling, the prospects for continued united backing for Colombian peace may not be so bright. The question of what sort of dangers could be posed to a long post-conflict process from the region are no longer easy to avoid. The question of what sort of dangers could be posed to a long post-conflict process from the region are no longer easy to avoid.

A united front

The most remarkable aspect of the Colombia deal is the way it has attracted general consensus on the need to broker an end to the war, bringing under one roof antagonists from across Latin America’s political spectrum. On all sides, the sheer human toll of a conflict that began in 1964, and which outlived the Cold War by tapping into the cocaine trade and spawning a mobile cast of amoral warring factions, could no longer find much by way of a political justification.

The political and business establishment, in Colombia and elsewhere, understood that continuing to fight the war meant tolerating paramilitary atrocities and forcing the military into a quagmire: by 2008, President Álvaro Uribe’s offensive had driven the FARC deep into the jungle, where the fight reached a stalemate.

For the left, meanwhile, the war represented an unnecessary and counter-productive throwback to an era when leftist leaders were persecuted, whereas the new millennium saw them coming to power in a tide of popular votes. Former insurgents populated governments in Argentina and Venezuela, and ended up leading them in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Brazil.

The change of heart of the late President Hugo Chávez towards the FARC epitomizes this dawning understanding across the Latin left that insurgency was not just obsolete, but also a strategic menace to the new wave of leaders. At the start of 2008, in a moment of great tension with Uribe, he voiced his camaraderie with the FARC, calling them “insurgent forces, political forces with a Bolivarian project.” Just months later, he instructed the rebels to lay down their arms and release all prisoners. “The war of the guerrillas has passed into history,” he told his television audience. “The FARC must know one thing: they have become an excuse for the empire to threaten us.” “The FARC must know one thing: they have become an excuse for the empire to threaten us.”

Public rebukes such as this from the quintessence of populist socialism are not without foundation. Daniel Pécault, one of the most respected historians of Colombia, has called the insurgency “an armed fight at the service of the social and political status quo,” in which an ever more brutal and criminalized Marxist insurgency crippled more moderate progressive movements by tainting them with the charge of terrorism, and dividing them on the issue of what position to take regarding the FARC. The legacy of this void in Colombia’s centre-left has been a highly stratified society, which veered to the uribista right just as the rest of the region was heading left.


[[wysiwyg_imageupload::]] Ivan Marquez, FARC chief negotiator, left, with Humberto de La Calle, right, head of Colombia's government peace negotiation team, after signing peace agreement in Havana, August 24, 2016. Desmond Boylan/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Regional calculations

Sympathies with the cause of a negotiated peace have spread far and wide. But under the veneer of peace-making, hard strategic calculations can also be glimpsed. Both Cuba and Venezuela have burnished their diplomatic credentials, easing the route to Havana’s restoration of relations with the US. Venezuela’s support for the peace process, and its willingness to broker the start of peace talks with Colombia’s other, smaller guerrilla force – the National Liberation Army (ELN) – represent one of its last remaining claims to a role on the international stage now its own internal mismanagement and authoritarian drift have so defaced the chavista brand.

READ MORE: Chavez to eternity

On the very same day in June that the Organization of American States was debating whether to apply its Charter on sound democratic practice to Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro was mingling with dignitaries at the signing of a ceasefire deal with the FARC. Weeks late, faced with tremendous food shortages and a spike in looting, Maduro turned to his neighbor again as a source of salvation. The borders that he closed in 2015 were opened once again, allowing tens of thousands to go shopping for essentials. While relations between Venezuela and Colombia swerve in and out of pleasantries and are strained by mistrust, the two appear to need one another: Colombia for support in dealing with the FARC and the ELN as well as for a degree of border control, Venezuela for a lifeline to food and a refuge for its waning reputation.

But these self-interested transactions may not be enough to protect a delicate peace process from Latin America’s multiplying political fissures. The widespread talk of coups – in Venezuela, both government and opposition accuse each other of embarking on one – is an echo of the perception that as radical governments age and wane, they are either toppled by shadowy conservative forces, arguably the case in Brazil, or seek to buttress themselves undemocratically, as in Nicaragua. And as weak or struggling governments accuse one another of dark conspiracies, Latin America’s various organizations for regional unity and integration have become a pit of nationalist bickering.

The Mercosur union is the best known example. After months of spats, its founding members, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, decided that Venezuela would be suspended unless it makes all its legislation comply with the bloc’s rules: a near impossible task, requiring 300 laws be approved by an opposition-led National Assembly before December. The Central American Integration System, or SICA, is stymied by Nicaragua’s suspicions of its neighbours. The OAS is short of cash and prone to division.

Organizations created in a flurry by Chávez and peers at the height of their ambitions for a post-liberal regional order have suffered the same fate. The Bolivarian Alliance, ALBA, hangs by the threads of Venezuelan oil. UNASUR, the South American Union, is weak and ineffectual. The Banco del Sur, unveiled to great fanfare in 2007 with a plan to gather 20 billion dollars in capital for regional investments, is supposed to open later this year with just 200 million on its books.

READ MORE: Crime and the state: Latin America’s season of scandal. 

Fears for Colombia

As far as the Colombian peace process is concerned, this regional decomposition does not appear to have great immediate significance. Furious efforts by Uribe to condemn the castro-chavista drift of the peace deal appear not to have won over a majority of the electorate ahead of the plebiscite. FARC fighters should be able to gather in cantonments in the coming months, and hand over weapons under the oversight of a UN Mission that has clear US and European backing. But in the hazier distance, once those same fighters are grappling with a return to civilian life or are “deprived of liberty” for their parts in war crimes, the absence of any strong regional body that could mediate between ex-combatants, local and national authorities, and neighbouring states is likely to be more keenly felt. Implosion of the Venezuelan regime, or further militarization, stands out as one of Latin America’s most conspicuous security risks.

Implosion of the Venezuelan regime, or further militarization, stands out as one of Latin America’s most conspicuous security risks. Loosening control over illicit border activities, a wave of refugees, or paralysis of talks with the ELN are among the more frequently cited fears, possibly dragging elements of the FARC back into criminal activity. Yet just as important would be the effect on the ex-FARC as it seeks reassurance in its first years as a peaceful political and social force. Ecuador’s elections in 2017, and Brazil’s a year later, might reaffirm the drift away from the left. Colombia’s vote in 2018 could also spell an end to government interest in the country’s peace process.

It is at the very moment when the post-conflict transition loses its attraction and visibility to the public, to national politicians and to the broader international community that regional organizations should play a supportive role. But the polarization of Latin America makes any form of commitment to engagement in another country’s internal affairs highly problematic. Colombia may not think it has much to fear from the talk of coups in Venezuela or across the region. But it could find itself needing more than a sideways glance from self-absorbed neighbours in the years to come.

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