Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement is in crisis, despite the Farc’s commitment

Originally published 2nd October 2019, this article is republished from the Morning Star Newspaper – the online Morning Star edition can be found HERE

In 2017 Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) gave up its weapons and began a process of demobilisation, based on a 2016 peace agreement which promised the Farc political legitimacy and protection from capitalist-backed paramilitary violence, as well as comprehensive rural reform for the benefit of peasants.

Highlighting that the exploitation and victimisation of peasants by powerful capitalist interests, alongside gross land inequalities, explains the persistence of civil war, the peace agreement calls for the “progressive access to rural property to those who live in the countryside, and in particular, to rural women and to the most vulnerable communities, and by legalising and democratising property and promoting broader ownership of land, so that it fulfils its social function.”

Colombia’s land distribution is the most unequal in Latin America and, according to 2018 data, 81 per cent of land — commonly the most fertile land for production — was owned by 1 per cent of the largest farms. This is in spite of multiple land reforms passed in Congress, such as one in 2011, all of which have been progressive in theory but opposed by capitalist-oriented institutions in practice. In Colombia, “anti-restitution” paramilitaries are regularly funded by landowners to oppose the practical implementation of land reforms.

Moreover, from the outset, peace negotiations were opposed by senior agro-industrial representatives. The president of Fedegan, the main federation for large-scale cattle ranchers, opposed the peace agreement on the basis that it would “stifle entrepreneurship and threaten landownership in rural areas.” Put more accurately, such rural-based landowners worry that the rural development reform component of the peace agreement threatens their economic investments and political influence.

Showing a lack of political commitment to land reform, Colombia’s right-wing government recently appointed Jaime Castro to oversee the rural development reform initiative pertaining to the peace agreement. Castro has represented some of the largest palm oil corporations, including companies that have been charged for violently forcing peasants from their land. In other words, a leading spokesperson for corporate interests associated with using violence against peasants has been assigned to oversee what was intended to be a progressive land reform programme to assist some of the most vulnerable members of Colombian society.

Indeed, agro-industrial capitalists, like those represented by Castro, have been a leading sponsor of right-wing paramilitaries, who serve the dual function of terrorising trade-union activists and left-wing insurgents while violently displacing peasants from their land to make way for capitalist investment.

Making a mockery of the idea that the peace agreement will protect Farc and social activists, such paramilitary death squads have murdered more than 150 ex-Farc combatants, in addition to more than 500 left-wing social activists, especially trade union members, since it was signed in late 2016.

Recently, an ex-Farc combatant was murdered by paramilitaries after having been denied protection by the state, suggesting that state institutions are reluctant to provide the essential security measures sanctioned by the peace agreement. Since the peace process of 2017, the Farc has run as a mainstream political party in elections, with no armed wing — despite continued attacks by right-wing paramilitaries who have not disarmed.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s government has commanded Farc’s bodyguards to return their firearms in the run-up to Farc’s first local election campaign. This puts some of the Colombian labour movement’s most capable and dedicated leaders and activists in danger.

Rodrigo Londono, the Farc party leader, responded in an interview covering the killings of Farc members: “Even though they kill us, we’re committed to peace. They do not kill only former Farc members, but also human rights and environmental activists. This is a consequence of the civil war and is still an issue we must overcome.”

Indeed, whereas Farc traded in its weapons and money, provides logistical and material support for its former military members to reintegrate into civilian society, co-operates with transitional justice procedures and expels Farc members arguing for a return to insurgency, the Colombian state is failing to meet its side of the peace bargain.

Human rights groups, academics, and think tanks have noted a serious lack of political will to implement peace agreement-related programmes intended to address the underlying grievances that have sustained civil war for more than half a century.

On the other hand, a central motivation for the state’s willingness to negotiate has been to get Farc insurgents out the way so that extraction-oriented multinationals can continue to expand their business operations, especially in territories that were previously denied to them by leftist insurgents.

In a recent interview with the academics Hylton and Tauss, the former president of Ecopetrol, Colombia’s increasingly privatised oil and gas company, declared: “With peace, we hope to be able to go into Caqueta, Arauca, and Catacumbo with greater strength, and Putumayo with much greater strength.” These territories have been historic guerilla-held strongholds.

Similarly, the IMF, a representative of multinational corporations sometimes nicknamed the “Institute for Misery and Famine,” defended the negotiations with Farc, saying that “peace would be good for business.” Hence, the 2015 peace agreement can be understood as a part of a new growth strategy oriented around multinationals based in imperialist states, which are increasingly investing in Colombia’s mining and petroleum industries.

While such multinationals have benefited from the agreement, very little material assistance has been provided by the Colombian state to peasants and rural workers, which was a key Farc demand for signing the peace agreement in the first instance.

In an interview for this article, Manuel Bolivar, director of New Colombia (Farc’s broadcasting service) as well as a Farc political leader, said: “Progress in the implementation of the agreements, referring to the first point, Rural Development Reform, has not advanced. There are no real achievements that have resulted in the positive transformation of the underdeveloped conditions in which peasants and farm workers live, especially in relation to the abolition of the large estates as a traditional and violent barrier to this change.”

Many in Colombia’s labour movement are becoming increasingly sceptical of the possibility of defending the peace agreement’s implementation due to the widespread hostility of pro-capitalist institutions. Edgar, a central committee member with the Communist Party, in response to an interview question in Bogota asking what Colombia’s labour movement can do politically to defend the agreement, stated bluntly that: “It’s a dream, a dream, a dream.”

He stressed that various capitalist interests, especially landed factions, have organised around the right-wing government and are determined to prevent the implementation of the peace agreement — even at the expense of using further political violence.

Last month 20 senior Farc figures announced their return to armed insurgency — although more than 95 per cent of Farc’s membership has refused to rearm and the Farc party has condemned and expelled the dissidents.

Those who rearmed argued that it was necessary because the Colombian state has betrayed the agreements and failed to protect Farc activists and labour movement leaders operating openly and peacefully as legal political activists.

Ivan Marquez, previously the second in command of Farc’s insurgent organisation and historically not known as a hardliner, declared: “How naive we were for not remembering the wise words of our commander in chief, Manuel Marulanda Velez, when he had warned us that weapons were the only guarantee of compliance with the agreements. The sad reality is that they put us in a rabbit trap.”

Corporate social media giants pandered to counter-insurgency interests within days by closing down the social media accounts of Farc dissidents. The dissidents have called themselves “Farc-EP” (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — People’s Army) — and the leadership released a 30-minute YouTube video explaining their reasons for renewing the armed struggle: the video, alongside the organisations’ website is no longer accessible.

Ultimately, the vast majority of Farc’s members remain committed to the peace process and will now consider changing their political party’s name at their next congress — influenced by the desire to distance themselves from the rearming and military-oriented Farc-EP.

Still, with so little of the peace agreement being implemented by congress, the continuing assassinations of social activists and the state’s refusal to protect Farc as a political party, Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement faces a major crisis.

It could turn out that many more social activists, workers, and peasants in the near future will turn to armed struggle and the Farc-EP if only as a strategy to guarantee that the state fulfils its commitment to the peace agreement.

As such, the Colombian state will have to contend with left-wing insurgents for the next few years at least, while a progressive government could find a potential ally in the Farc’s political party which is arguing against a return to the armed struggle.

Why has Colombia’s government ended peace talks with Marxist rebels ELN?

eln_-_web13Originally published 11th March 2019, this article is republished from the Morning Star Newspaper – the online Morning Star edition can be found HERE

SINCE 2017, Colombia’s government and the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) have been publicly engaged in peace talks to end 54 years of armed conflict.

But following the inauguration of right-wing president Ivan Duque in August 2018, a man who vowed to end peace talks during his presidential campaign, Colombia’s new government has since canceled negotiations and called for the arrest of ELN’s negotiating team.

This reactivation of an Interpol notice ignores security protocols mutually agreed to by the negotiating parties, which promised the safe return of ELN’s political leadership to their units in Colombia in the event of the collapse of peace talks.

This demand also created a diplomatic dilemma for Cuba’s government – the facilitator of Colombia’s peace negotiations – although Cuba has declared that it will abide by the prearranged protocols.

Peace negotiations were canceled after the ELN claimed responsibility for a bombing against the country’s largest training academy used for the National Police, killing 20 police officers and injuring dozens more. While ELN’s negotiating team in Cuba claimed that this attack was coordinated without their knowledge, they admitted that it was organised by a local ELN guerilla front.

The ELN said that after agreeing to a unilateral ceasefire over the Christmas and New Year period, the security forces expanded into rebel-held territories and killed many of its members and supporters – acts of aggression that have not been reported by Colombia’s corporate media.

ELN claims that as the National Police and its training academies are employed for counter-insurgency purposes, the bombing was aimed at a legitimate military target. In a statement released officially, it further declared that it is “very disproportionate that, while the government is attacking us, it then states that we cannot respond [militarily]…”

The offensive has been exploited by Colombia’s right-wing as a pretext to dismantle peace talks. Still, despite his emphasis on a military rather than a negotiated solution to the armed conflict, President Duque has so far failed to gain the political support for waging all-out war indefinitely.

Duque and his party – the Democratic Centre – are an isolated minority in the National Congress and are struggling to unite the dominant classes behind their militaristic agenda, particularly in relation to the exporting sectors.

Many such capitalists and their business associations supported Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement with Farc, Colombia’s other (now demobilised) left-wing revolutionary group. The peace agreement permitted some of these capitalists the ability to access and exploit land and resources previously prohibited to them by leftist insurgents.

As former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced in 2015, “A Colombia in peace will attract more investments that will create more and better jobs.” What is more, cocaine production has skyrocketed since the signing of the peace accord with Farc because the insurgent groups’ demobilisation allowed narco-capitalists to take over territory once governed by leftist rebels.

The return to an openly militarist strategy by the Colombian state may not be necessary, however. Paramilitary forces, sponsored largely by landowners, are continuing to murder trade unionists, social leaders and human rights activists in significant numbers. Since the signing of the peace agreement in 2016 with Farc, at least 85 former Farc insurgents have been murdered.

Likewise, according to the campaign group Justice for Colombia, as of January 17 2019 “163 killings [of trade-unionists, social leaders and human rights activists] have been verified with 454 cases reported in total.” Several more trade-unionists have been killed since and they are being murdered on a regular basis.

Colombia still remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a social activist. This all occurs while US co-operation with Colombia’s government and armed forces grows.

In reality, ELN’s attack in the capital, Bogota, serves to conceal the underlying reasons for Duque’s desire to end peace talks. The ELN, unlike the former Farc, is more federally structured and incorporates social rights groups as well as trade unions into its organisation. The ELN contrasts with many other left-wing insurgent movements in Latin America in that it depends less on military activity and more on community grassroots structures.

For example, ELN has insisted from the outset that civilian entities should be integral to peace negotiations, while holding that the discussions should be conducted publicly. Negotiating with the ELN, as such, entails having to compromise with civil society, not merely a small political elite or a seven-man “secretariat” based in the jungles.

The ELN appears to fear another accord with Colombia’s government whereby the rebels disarm, but state terrorism continues to be employed against the socialist movement. The ELN and its political allies have sought to use the peace negotiations as an opportunity to change the conditions that give rise to civil war, calling the objective “peace with social justice.”

Yet Duque has ruled out socio-economic reforms demanded by Colombia’s social activists and dismisses the ELN as a “terrorist group” – regarding it as nothing more than a “criminal entity.”

Rather than reveal a willingness to compromise politically during the recent talks, Duque made ambitious demands on the ELN. He insisted that before talks can be allowed to progress, the ELN would have to cease its practices of “extortion” – what the organisation calls “revolutionary taxes.”

But if the ELN put into practice this demand, it would cut off its main source of funding. Having to feed thousands of combatants three meals a day, provide clothing and equipment for continuing the armed struggle, alongside having to cater to civilian needs and grievances, is an expensive political project. Subsequently, if the ELN agreed to halt its practices of “extortion”, it would quickly go bankrupt and would not be able to carry on fighting if attacked.

Ultimately, despite Duque’s rejection of negotiations, the ELN still has numerous bargaining chips. Pablo Beltran, one of ELN’s senior political leaders, recently declared that in the event of a possible US invasion from Colombia into Venezuela the ELN would defend Venezuela’s sovereignty and conduct guerilla operations against US troops.

Furthermore, the ELN depends on a reserve force numbering several thousand demobilised combatants – ELN combatants based in the mountains are normally permitted to demobilise as civilian “reservists” after a three-year period. These civilian members and supporters are then liable to be called back up to join the armed units if the conflict intensifies.

Additionally, the ELN has a significant base of support in strategic sectors of Colombia – for example, along the oil-rich border with Venezuela. With no lack of influence or of peasants wanting to join the movement, the ELN can continue to threaten the Colombian state and ruling class infrastructure for the foreseeable future.

Meeting FARC Insurgents

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Near the Colombian border in Ecuador, in 2010, I spoke with a former FARC guerrilla who was forcefully relieved of his duties after a military aircraft took one of his legs away. Like the overwhelming majority of Campesinos I have met, and although he was categorised as a ‘terrorist’ by some governments, I was received by the ex-guerrilla fighter with humility and kindness. And despite that the revolutionary’ had his leg blown away, almost certainly by US-made bombs, this man had not become the kind of ‘terrorist’ usually portrayed in the media – psychotic and driven by hatred, especially, they say, of ‘gringos’ like me.

The young FARC militant had fled to Ecuador to escape a private ‘security’ force, sponsored by landowners, which is not known for killing its left-wing peasant enemies quickly or quietly. Even after the FARC militant had paid the permanent and gruesome price of losing a limb to a night-time bombing in the jungle, instead of surrender to benefit from a government programme that rewards guerrillas financially who disband and collaborate, he continued to choose poverty and insecurity while doing what he could to defend the FARC as an amputee in civilian communities.

I found out in 2014 that three of my closest friends from Colombia had been killed. We spoke for the last time in January 2013 on Skype, and I did not learn of their violent end by military units until later in October. I spent around 18 days with them on a farm in the countryside of Cauca province – conversing about their personal histories with the FARC, and about the political situation in Colombia. It was July of 2010, shortly after the eight-year presidential leadership of Alvaro Uribe, a right-wing militarist welcomed by Colombia’s ‘narco-bourgeoisie’, and who predictably, has not supported the 2016 peace agreement. The political ‘establishment’ and economic elites tend to believe that FARC and ELN should be treated as a ‘terrorist threat’ as opposed to social forces organically rooted in rural working-class communities spread throughout Colombia.

Although we have been told many terrible stories about insurgents in Colombia, I was not able to identify a single strain of fanatism, or an ideological mindset, in these FARC revolutionaries, which included, at the time of death, a 24-year-old mother. Aside from active work with FARC, they were employed as labourers, had stable families and friendships, and were no more stubborn than your average conservative; they seemed to be deeply concerned about the state and direction of their country.

While it is always difficult to pinpoint individual motivations, it was clearly not drugs or money that motivated these revolutionaries, including one who already escaped an aeroplane bombing, but not without first losing a thumb and having his stomach and back covered with shrapnel. Their daily examples contrast with the thoughts of ‘greed theorists’ who conclude that FARC members are drug traffickers or bandits exploiting political ideology for their personal ambitions.

Instead, the real crime of the FARC insurgents I met was to correspond their feelings of indignation, into the deeds of political practices. And through that action, they sacrificed everything, not merely their lives, but also their security while they still had the chance to live. So, it became obvious to me that such guerrillas should not be described as drug-traffickers or bandits part of an organisation that gave up or lost its political identity decades ago.

Note: Names of those described above have been hidden to protect friends and family members.