Colombia – struggle continues for peace with justice

colombiaAfter 52 years of heroic armed struggle, the people of Colombia still have the chance to secure an honourable peace in which to continue the struggle for a new society.

On 26 September, before a crowd of some 2,500, among them regional leaders including Cuban President Comrade Raúl Castro and Venezuelan President Comrade Nicolás Maduro, in the city of Cartagena on Colombia’s northern coast, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Comrade Timoleón Jiménez, known as Timochenko, the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP) formally signed a peace agreement that had been hammered out over four years of difficult negotiations in the Cuban capital Havana, that concluded on 24 August.

More than five decades of armed conflict in Colombia have reportedly claimed some 220,000 lives, left 45,000 missing and displaced millions.

Following the formal signing in Cartagena, the people of Colombia were given the chance to accept or reject the agreement in a referendum called for 2 October. President Santos expressed his confidence that the peace deal would be approved, claiming, when the peace agreement was signed, that, “the latest polls say that between 65-70% of the people approve of the peace process” (‘Colombia’s President Santos says Farc deal must rebuild country’, BBC, 26 September 2016). The peace process and the resulting deal has however been consistently opposed by the most reactionary sections of Colombian society, grouped around Alvaro Uribe, who was president from 2002-10, and under whom Santos served as defence minister, 2006-9. These forces have sought to prolong the conflict in the hope of delivering a fatal blow to Farc and the oppressed and revolutionary people they represent and lead.

Considering the consistent showing of the opinion polls, there was widespread shock, therefore, when the referendum result became known. By the narrowest of margins the electorate had voted to reject it. In fact, 63% of the electorate failed to vote at all. Among those who did, 13 million out of a possible 35 million, 50.2% voted to reject the deal, while 49.8% voted to endorse it, the tiniest of majorities. A majority of the No votes came from urban areas unaffected by the conflict. A great majority of the areas most affected by the conflict voted Yes, sometimes with 95% of the registered vote. The Economist, in its edition of 8 October, observed: “If Hurricane Matthew had not drenched the Caribbean coast, where support for the peace deal is high, the vote might have gone the other way.”

Main points of the agreement

There are five main points to the agreement reached on 24 August:

  • An end to violence: A bilateral ceasefire was signed, under which Farc is to hand in all its weapons to the United Nations. Farc had, in any event, been observing a unilateral ceasefire.
  • Protection of victims’ rights: A Peace Tribunal is to be set up to ensure their rights to justice and truth and to ensure there is no return to war. While the media has largely reported that this will be used to investigate the activities of members of Farc in the conflict, it in fact refers to all combatants.
  • Land restitution: A fund is to be established in order to distribute land to those displaced by the conflict.
  • Reintegration of Farc: Armed members of Farc are to be reintegrated into society and Farc will become a political party that will participate in elections in 2018. Before that, with immediate effect, Farc would be allocated 10 seats in Colombia’s House of Representatives on a non-voting basis.
  • Combating narco-trafficking: Both the government and Farc have agreed to cooperate in efforts to eradicate drug trafficking.

A six-member commission, comprising three representatives from each side, has been established to oversee the implementation of these agreements over the next 10 years.

Farc Conference

Prior to the 26 September signing, Farc comrades met between 17-23 September for what is intended to be their last major gathering as an insurrectionary movement and unanimously approved the peace deal, also approving plans for their transformation into an unarmed political party. The Tenth National Guerrilla Conference of the FARC-EP issued this inspiring Political Declaration on the conclusion of its work:

“The guerrilla delegates from all structures of the FARC-EP throughout the national territory that have come from deep inside Colombia, gathered at the 10th Conference that was held from 17-23 September this year at Brisas del Diamante in the Savannas of Yarí, send the Colombian people and society in general our fraternal and cordial compatriots’ greetings. At the same time we declare that:

“We have held a beautiful and momentous conference amidst the broadest democratic participation and camaraderie, which has reasserted the coherence and internal unity of our organisation. We would like to highlight the full and active participation of our female guerrillas and young political cadres.

“After a thoughtful discussion on the Agreements of Havana, Cuba, Territory of Peace, reached between the FARC-EP and the Government of Colombia for the termination of the conflict and construction of a stable and lasting peace, the conference, our highest decision-making body, has determined to approve them in their entirety and instruct all blocks and fronts, our leaders, the guerrillas, militias and all our FARC-EP members that they be accepted and respected. We have thus ratified our unrestricted commitment to the fulfilment of all that has been agreed. We expect the government to do likewise.

“We are convinced that the Final Agreement contains great potential for the opening of a political transition towards the transformation of Colombian society, for its real democratisation and the realisation of its rights, and especially for the well-being and welfare of the humble women and men of the countryside and the cities, the working class, ethnic peoples, indigenous and those of African descent, the LGBTI population, and especially the youth and our future generations. We call upon them to embrace and protect the agreements, to make them their own, to accompany and demand their implementation. By joining forces, we will achieve the common goals of consolidating the prospect of a peace with social justice, national reconciliation and of an advanced democracy for the New Colombia.

“The Final Agreement reached in Havana, Cuba, contains the minimums necessary to give continuity through political forms to our historical aspirations for the transformation of the existing social order. For this reason, we decided to put in place all the means necessary for the progression of our political-military structure towards a new political party whose founding congress will be held at the latest by May 2017 if the agreements are implemented as agreed. It will be the Party’s role to provide continuity for our strategic political aims for the social construction of power for the people. The conference empowers the National Leadership of the FARC-EP to convene a plenary session of the Central High Command and to define the broadening of the new leadership that will be responsible for the preparation of the Congress, the political programme, the statutes and the political line, as well as the organisational and operating conditions.

“We are committed to providing all our strength and energy for the unity of progressive, democratic and revolutionary sectors of the country, as well as the political and social movements, the many sectoral and advocacy organisations at the national, regional and local levels. We want to be part of a Great National Convergence that covers the spectrum of social and popular struggles, that advocates for real political, economic, social and cultural democratisation of the country, and whose platform, organisational foundations and coordination must be the result of a collective elaboration. The Great National Convergence must have the ability to build social, political and popular power from below, and at the same time challenge for state power in the institutional spaces of election and representation.

“We will work for a new government, for the building of peace and national reconciliation starting from the definition of a minimum programme, which in addition to a commitment to the implementation of the Final Agreement, will take up the most deeply felt social aspirations of the population in an immediate sense.

“We call for the invitation to ‘all parties, political and social movements and all the active forces of the country to put together a great national political agreement to define the reforms and institutional adjustments needed to meet the challenges that peace demands, initiating a new framework of political and social coexistence’ as stated in the Final Agreement, to be made a reality. Favourable conditions for that aim are found in the momentum for an open constitutional process that leads to the convening and holding of a National Constituent Assembly.

“The war is over, let’s all build peace!”

In the context of the agreement, the dangers remain:

Colombians across many sectors of society, and especially the youth, are going all out to ensure that their sentiments for peace and against military solutions to social and political problems are expressed in the plebiscite and that the forces for war and aggression are defeated. However there are also attempts to destroy this coherence by characterising the commitment by the FARC-EP to disarm, if conditions in the Agreement are met, as the main determinant of peace, as if the resistance of those who fought state-organised military and paramilitary violence was the cause of the conflict and their laying down of arms will end it” (Margot Villamizar, Marxist-Leninist Weekly (Canada) 24 September 2016).

Farc – true champions of peace

The same author noted how throughout the complicated and protracted negotiations it was the Farc that has always taken steps to promote peace:

During the four years of negotiations in Havana the FARC-EP implemented unilateral ceasefires a number of times to facilitate the dialogue towards a peace agreement. The last one was declared in July 2015 and was never lifted. These actions were what kept the space open for dialogue and for peace. All along the FARC-EP sought to get the government to join it in a bilateral ceasefire, but the government refused, agreeing only to suspend its aerial bombardments until the final agreement was reached.

“Throughout the four years of negotiations, government forces continued attacking FARC-EP camps and killing its members, including a member of its peace delegation. Before that, in November 2011, while preliminary exploratory talks were taking place, Colombian special forces were dispatched to kill the FARC-EP’s Commander-in-Chief, Alfonso Cano in a targeted assassination. In spite of all this, the FARC-EP refused to be provoked, remained at the table and continued to press for a bilateral ceasefire, alongside its demands for solutions to the social problems that have plagued Colombia. They were joined by a significant and broad section of the Colombian people in these demands. This is what ensured that the negotiations would not be derailed and opened the space for political and social solutions to be reached to political and social problems that war and the use of force serve to make worse. It prevented the pro-war forces in Colombia, backed by the imperialists who financed and directly intervened in the war, from being able to declare that a negotiated settlement was not possible and that there was no alternative to the neo-liberal project for Colombia.

“The invitation to many different sectors of Colombian society to submit their proposals for solutions to Colombia’s social problems and participate directly in the deliberations in Cuba, as well as forums organised inside Colombia, allowed many people, especially those traditionally excluded and abandoned by the state, and the victims of the war, to occupy the space the peace process opened up. It permitted the people to contribute directly to the achievement of a political settlement, reconciliation and the creation of conditions for peace in a new Colombia.

“It is precisely such social and political transformations that the warmongers in the Colombian establishment and their foreign imperialist backers would never allow. The end to the armed conflict and the popular demand for a non-military approach to the many problems of Colombian society has diminished the ability of the US to fuel the internal war and use it as a pretext to base its military forces in the region and threaten neighbouring countries.”

The question of disarmament

Explaining the question of Farc’s disarmament and the dangers this contains, she writes:

The disarmament of the FARC-EP is a separate issue but related to the permanent bilateral ceasefire now in effect. It involves the transition of the FARC-EP to an open legal political entity with safeguards for its members to prevent the repeat of past bitter experiences with previous failed attempts at ending the war. One such attempt occurred in 1984 when the Union Patriotica (UP) political party was founded by, among others, FARC-EP members who had laid down their arms as a result of negotiations with the government of the day. Within a few years over 5,000 UP members, including two of its presidential candidates, eight Congress members, hundreds of mayors and municipal councillors and thousands of its local activists were murdered, disappeared and tortured at the hands of state and paramilitary forces. This is the history from which much of the current FARC-EP leadership emerged, so it is obvious that several factors must first be in place before disarmament occurs this time.

“It is important to note that since the signing of the Peace Agreement paramilitary killings and threats against human rights defenders, community leaders and other activists continued and even increased. Colombians need to defend themselves from the violence of the state, especially in rural areas, which is one of the main reasons Colombian peasants took up the armed resistance in the first place” (‘All Out to Support Peace Agreement and Ceasefire in Colombia – The Factors for Peace’).

Besides the FARC-EP, there is another significant armed revolutionary movement in Colombia, the National Liberation Army (ELN), which has yet to conclude a peace agreement with the government. Bourgeois media and think tanks have suggested that the ELN may try to sabotage the accord or even seek to attract disillusioned Farc members. However, the ELN has strongly denied this and is also seeking to pursue a peace process. Its commander, Comrade Pablo Beltran said on 23 September that the group would suspend all offensive actions during the vote on the peace deal, which he said the ELN broadly supports. Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa has offered to host peace talks in his capital, Quito between the ELN and the Colombian government and to play the same role that socialist Cuba has played in the peace process with FARC-EP. On 11 October, it was further announced that formal peace negotiations between the ELN and the Colombian government would begin in Quito on 27 October. Venezuela, Norway, Cuba, Chile, Brazil and Ecuador will act as guarantors of the process.

With regard to the cause of the referendum defeat on 2 October, Gwen Burnyeat, who was working as a volunteer with various civil society organisations to mobilise support for the yes vote, wrote in the 20 October edition of the London Review of Books that:

Many – possibly most – Colombians didn’t entirely understand this legalistic text, which is 297 pages long. It was easy to misinterpret, and the No campaign did a lot of misinterpreting and outright lying, in pamphlets handed out at traffic lights, at public question-and-answer sessions, and, crucially, in posts on WhatsApp and Facebook. By contrast, when I talked to people face to face about the contents of the deal they were quick to see its strengths.”

One of the charges, she continued, was that President Santos “is destroying the family by imposing homosexuality. This is a wild spin on the negotiators’ gender sub-commission, which looked at the differential impact of the conflict on women and the LGBTI community: a first in global conflict resolution. Conveniently, just before the No campaign was launched, a fake copy of an education ministry manual about gender discrimination, with images of a gay couple in bed inside it, did the rounds. In August 35,000 people joined a demonstration protesting that ‘gender ideology’ was going to ‘turn’ their children gay. Many of the same activists, often influenced by church leaders, joined the No campaign.

Other rumours: pensions to be docked by 7 per cent to pay for the Farc’s integration into society; an onerous peace tax; cuts in the military; capital flight. Above all, the electorate was promised that a No vote was still a vote for peace, pending a renegotiation of the points they did not like. But the deal hung on all six points being agreed: the government and the Farc could not cherry-pick. Both parties also stated plainly that a renegotiation was impossible. Post-referendum, it looks as though some kind of compromise will have to be made. Uribe’s objections were couched in rhetoric about the state not negotiating with terrorists, but his real aim is to sideline the political party that will replace the Farc. Uribe is seeking to regain power in the 2018 elections. He will try to renegotiate certain points, aiming to limit political participation for the Farc and to treat members who committed crimes (sic) less leniently” (‘No!’ by Gwen Burnyeat).

The Economist adds: “The ‘correctives’ Mr Uribe seeks will be fiendishly difficult to achieve. It took four years of formal negotiations in Havana (and nearly two years of talks about talks before that) to arrive at the 297-page accord. It deals with issues ranging from rural development and the drug trade to demobilisation, disarmament and punishment for perpetrators of war crimes. The changes Mr Uribe demands are to points on which agreement was hardest to reach. Government negotiators tried for a year to get the Farc to consent to jail time for war criminals (sic); they flatly refused.

“The rebels are now reluctant to tinker. ‘Having a will for peace doesn’t mean that the agreement can be modified,’ tweeted Carlos Antonio Lozada, a Farc negotiator, during meetings with government representatives in Havana. Colombia’s foreign minister, María Ángela Holguín, who is also a member of the negotiating team, warned that the scope for renegotiation is small. ‘Just as the government has its deal-breakers, so does the Farc. So we have to see if they are willing to reopen the accord,’ she said.

“Mr Uribe has now thrust himself into the centre of the conversation. His opening gambit has been to propose legislation granting a blanket amnesty to rank-and-file Farc guerrillas who are not wanted for serious crimes. That is not a contradiction of his no-impunity line. It is rather an inducement to fighters to desert the Farc, undermining the group’s plan to keep together and to reorganise as a political party (‘Colombia’s Peace Process. Where now?’, 8 October 2016).

Uribe is widely believed to want to run for the presidency again in 2018 and all his cynical political manoeuvrings should be judged in this light.

Following the referendum result, President Santos initially said the government would only maintain its side of the bilateral ceasefire until 31 October. Then on 14 October, he announced an extension to 31 December. In a televised address, Santos said the decision came after meeting student leaders who organised marches in support of peace. “One of the students reminded me that in the army and in the guerrilla ranks, there are young people waiting to see what happens, hoping that they don’t need to fire another shot,” he said.

In a communiqué the same day, the Central High Command of FARC-EP welcomed the government’s decision and reaffirmed its own observance of the ceasefire. The Central High Command declared that it is putting its full attention behind evaluating the latest proposals that have been received to advance peace, “always giving priority to defending the most heartfelt interests and dignity of the Colombian people“. They also pledged to “confront in the field of ideas all those who try to hinder peace”.

Clearly, the present situation in Colombia still presents both significant opportunities and serious dangers. The struggle has not ended. Far from it. It is merely entering a new phase – a phase in which the highly disciplined, highly experienced, highly courageous and highly principled comrades of the Farc aim to take their struggle for a new, democratic Colombia, that can open the way to socialism, out from remote rural base areas (in which the embryo of a new society has been forged) and into the whole of society, among the working class first and foremost.

Whatever the stage of the struggle, or the precise form it takes at any particular time, the revolutionary struggle of the FARC-EP, ELN and the entire anti-imperialist, working class and communist movement in Colombia needs and deserves the support and solidarity of the revolutionary working class and the communist movement throughout the world.

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