Colombia has probably been one of the most stigmatized countries in the world because of its reputation for excessive violence, organized crime, and illicit drug trade. For almost 50 years FARC has been trying to overthrow the government resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, open warfare, a growing drug trade, fear, instability, and social and economic limitations. For the first time in 10 years the Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos is opening official peace talks with the guerilla group, determined to secure a real solution to this protracted conflict.
FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces for Colombia) is a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary group that claims to be a peasant army, representing the poor people of Colombia, fighting for their equality against the rich and powerful. FARC was established in the early 1960s as a response to the elitist Spanish-born Colombians who have historically controlled provisions of land rights and dominated political endeavors. Like many Latin American countries, the majority of the Colombian population is comprised of many different indigenous groups who face social, political, and economic inequalities. FARC has a political ideology that opposes the upper class the political influence of the United States and, above all, it wants agrarian reform and better land rights for the peasant class. It finances its operations through drug trafficking and kidnappings and is considered by the US and most Western countries to be a terrorist group.
The 1980s and 1990s in Colombian history are referred to as La Violencia, describing a period of intense violence between FARC and the government, when more than 300,000 people were killed. The strength of FARC has diminished dramatically since that time, particularly in the last decade, with former president Uribe’s “get-tough policies” and a generous $8 billion in aid from the United States. The Colombian government has increased its stronghold on the situation and has recently killed several of FARC’s most important leaders. In 2008, the number of kidnappings was “at a 20-year low” according to the BBC. In 2000, more than 3,500 people were taken hostage and seven years later figures were down to less than 400. Though vastly improved, these numbers are still too high for President Santos, who wants to see an end to FARC’s operations even though he still enforces offensive military pressure to assure its presence.
Former rebel Leon Valencia says that FARC knows “they will never win militarily. They have the lost dream of triumph”. Venezuela and Cuba have traditionally been supporters of FARC and leftist revolutionary movements, but this too has decreased over the last few years. An analyst from social justice think tank DeJusticia stated that “Fidel Castro has said that armed conflict is no longer an acceptable means of change in Latin America…and is asking, ‘Chico, why are you still wandering up there in the mountains?’” When he took office in 2010, President Santos claimed that he would initiate peace talks when the government was ready, and it seems as though FARC is doing the same.
Peace talks have taken place in the past, but none have been successful. The last round of negotiations took place in the early 2000s but collapsed when the government agreed to allot a certain amount of land for FARC to operate in, which was used instead to train soldiers, hold hostages and produce narcotics. President Santos says that he will learn from the mistakes of the past. Namely, he knows to assure a peace process that will take months to achieve, not years, and that it “has to lead to the end of the conflict, not prolong it”.
It has been suggested that this attempt for peace is genuine and happening at an opportune moment since the conflict is close to a lasting solution. What is significant this time is that both parties have agreed to participate in negotiations. Analysts say that rebels admit they have been “defeated on the battlefield”, and the government knows that it needs to close a formal peace deal to assure security and stability for its rapidly growing economy.
A major problem facing the government, and Colombian society as a whole, is what will happen to the remaining rebels and their supporters if and when the peace talks are successful. While Colombians have shown support for the talks, most of them have been affected by the violence and are not willing to accept rebels into their society. A Colombian official, who spoke anonymously to the L.A. Times said rebels and their supporters are highly stigmatized in Colombian society, “Colombians want these fighters to come out of war, but they don’t want them to come to them”. In the last decade over 50,000 rebels have been demobilized and most of them are still living on government assistance—they require at least 6 and a half years of assistance after leaving their rebel groups before they can live independently. Social issues facing former rebels include the easy temptation to join one of Colombia’s drug trafficking gangs, and the difficulty of finding work. Very few people are willing to extend employment to former rebels. Not only do they have few applicable work skills, but also “business owners or their family members may have been victims of kidnappings, killings or extortion”.
The Colombian government wants peace and FARC wants land reform and some political representation. FARC opposes poor land distribution and land titles that have been seized by political elites who continue to dilute any reforms. They want to see “integral agrarian development,” which increases access to land, formalized land rights and opportunities to maximize the productivity for small farmers. The reforms that are in place by the government will only benefit 300,000 people, while it is estimated that about 1 million households have insubstantial property rights.
Santos has come prepared for the peace talks this time. Anticipating the grounds for negotiation, he passed a “Victims and Land Restitution Law” which is essentially a land titling and redistribution program. Specifically this law gives an opportunity to Colombians who have been forced to leave their homes because of violence and fumigation. This law will reach out to some of the five million internally displaced people living in Colombia, peasant farmers and demobilized rebels and will attempt to re-integrate them into society.
Santos knows that he must end the conflict. It has plagued his country for almost 50 years, instilled fear in his citizens and affected foreign relations. Colombia’s economy is expanding but 2% of growth is lost each year because of the conflict, and tourism is restricted because of security warnings. Colombia has come such a long way since the conflict began and now both the government and its strongest opposition are in a position to come to terms with each other.
The hope today is that Colombia will find peace. The opportunity is here.