Opening Paths Toward Peace

Nov 30, 2012 | News, Peace and Nonviolence, War and Conflict

Opening Paths Toward Peace
By Maureen Maya, Journalist and Social Researcher

Published in Semanario Virtual #330, November 23-29, 2012

On Monday, November 19, as delegates of the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas were getting ready to begin negotiations in the Conventions Palace in Havana, Cuba, guerrilla leader Luciano Marín Arango, alias Iván Marquez, gave a surprising public message, entitled “Opening paths towards peace”:

“The FARC Secretariat orders all guerrilla units in the entire national territory to cease all offensive military operations against the armed forces and stop acts of sabotage against public or private infrastructure, beginning midnight on November 20, 2012 until midnight on January 20, 2013.”

Reactions to this unilateral proposal and temporary truce were immediate. On one hand, there were those who expressed their support and optimism, and on the other, those who called it propaganda, trying to show the FARC as political guerrillas interested in responding to the call for peace from the Colombian people. And of course, there were voices from those who predicted the proposal would not be fulfilled.

Ex-Senator Piedad Córdoba, member of ‘Colombians for Peace,’ declared the importance of theFARC’s announcement because “it gives a lot of credibility to the peace process.” Clara Lopez, president of the Democratic Pole [leftist electoral party], affirmed that the FARC’s proposal “helps generate trust in the process” and that in response the “government should do the same.” In the same vein, Supreme Court magistrate Jaime Arrubla declared the truce proposal “could be a way to force the government to make a reciprocal gesture” and asked the FARC to accompany this initiative with more concrete proposals, such as “ending extortion and intimidation tactics.”

The judge and president of the State Council, Gustavo Gómez, was less optimistic about the initiative, and declared: “Whatever the FARC says or refrains from doing, should not matter to us. They live in a permanent state of absurdity. Poverty, marginalization and social inequality are not an excuse for killing.”

For his part, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon declared that military operations would continue in the entire national territory. “The armed forces have the constitutional obligation to pursue all criminals who have violated the constitution, who have violated the law and who have made attempts against the life and honor of Colombian citizens; in consequence, the FARC terrorists are pursued for all of the crimes they have committed over so many years and not because of future crimes.”

The Minister either ignores or doesn’t want to understand the importance of the process that is moving forward in Havana, and insists on using sectarian language, full of epithets and insults that do not favor the environment for peace that people are trying to consolidate in the country. He told the media: “It’s very difficult to believe that they are capable of not killing children, or of not carrying out assassination attempts against the civilian population like the ones we have seen in the last few weeks.”

President Juan Manual Santos reminded the country that a ceasefire was never agreed upon during the development of the peace dialogues, and that “the sooner we arrive at an agreement, the sooner the guns will be silenced.”

Camilo González Posso, director of the Center for Peace, Memory and Reconciliation and the organization Indepaz, believes the proposed truce helps relax the environment. Nevertheless, he also believes the FARC want to gain a space for public opinion where their politics could reach a wider audience, and predicted this announcement could accelerate a joint ceasefire declaration, the third issue on the negotiation agenda.

Without a doubt the FARC’s proposal is a sign of their goodwill and reflects their disposition to move forward along a path toward a political negotiation and solution to the armed conflict. But it remains difficult, based on the proposal to guarantee the reduction of violent actions throughout the country, or that a ceasefire could realistically diminish the pressures and tensions present in this fragile process.

First, it is necessary to clarify that the FARC order to its combatants for a ceasefire apply to all offensive military operations, not to defensive operations. Consequently, the guerrillas will continue to respond to attacks from the armed forces, actions that, as the Defense Minister stated, will continue throughout the country.  It is clear that without the declaration of a bilateral ceasefire, the rhythm of the war will continue, and could even increase.

In fact, even before the first 24 hours of the Christmas truce had passed, the media already carried military bulletins informing that the ceasefire had been broken by the FARC when, according to General Jorge Humberto Jerez, commander of the Apolo Task Force in Cauca, guerrilla troops had exploded a minefield. “Fortunately, due to the expertise and training of the troops, the situation was overcome without incident,” the general said, criticizing the FARC for having raised peace flags in one hand, while simultaneously continuing the terrors and deaths of the mine fields in the other.

On the same day, the army commander in Popayán, General Sergio Mantilla Sanmiguel, claimed that attacks continue “not only against the troops but against civil society as well.” The government secretary in Antioquia State, Santiago Londoño, reported that two energy towers had exploded, attributed to the FARC’s 36th Front.

Second, as the National Government has pointed out, it is not possible to verify compliance with a temporary truce.  “These verifications are very difficult,” declared Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón, after only the first few hours of the truce had passed.

Additionally, if we consider the image of the war presented by the Armed Forces to not be trustworthy, with much of it made up, altered and reflecting personal interests, it is clear that the Armed Forces are not the ones to verify the truce. If it is so difficult for the national government to verify, it is also difficult for guerrilla forces that lost control over their armed fronts years ago.

Another aspect that would make the promise impossible to fulfill, is the possibility that some of theFARC combatants are not aware of the instruction imparted by the Secretariat and instead continue warfare, a real possibility considering that the guerrillas’ interior structure is not unanimous regarding the peace negotiations. This could mean that one sector of the guerrillas could come to sabotage themselves. Professor Marc Chernick, in his book Possible Agreement, Negotiated Solution to the Colombian Armed Conflict [in Spanish], identifies spoilers as one of the principal causes to the rupture of these processes. Spoilers are those who clearly reside in armed groups between factions who oppose the agreements, and “third parties, outside of the negotiating table, interested in obstructing agreements.” (p. 45)

The existence within the military forces of known and established elements that tend to the extreme right, who have historically negated a political solution and would be interested in sabotaging the peace process, is nothing new nor surprising. The existence of other armed groups, for whom a peace process is not useful or in their interests, additionally could carry out attacks, including terrorist attacks, and blame them on the FARC and torpedo the negotiations. Each new act of violence will be used to take legitimacy away from the process and diminish the guerrillas’ already low credibility in the country.

The unilateral truce was announced by Iván Márquez as an “example of the will to generate a political environment favorable to advance dialogues.” But rather than becoming an advancement of the negotiation process, it could bring new tensions to both the negotiation table as well as the country itself.

Although the secrecy of the conversations keeps us from knowing any developments of the first point, “the policies of holistic agrarian development,” there is reason to believe that, despite difficulties and the obvious fragility of the process, there have been advances in the designed plan, parties have managed to stay at the negotiation table despite provocations and sabotage attempts, and regionally constructed peace agendas are beginning to be considered.

Former President Belisario Betancur, paraphrasing Lenin, referred to “objective factors” of the Colombian conflict’s violence. Social inequality — recognized by the United Nations —; social, political, economic, and cultural patterns of exclusion; land inequality; the criminal actions of so-called private justice; impunity; State violence; forced displacement; and poverty and the absence of social guarantees for full human development — to affirm these as the structural causes of the conflict is to recognize that the construction of a country at peace demands the participation of all citizens and the recognition of the voices and proposals that emerge from the areas where the armed conflict has hit the hardest.

The active and incident participation of civil society, which has organized and developed proposals to be present at the negotiation table, is neither a concession nor a democratic favor. Rather, it is a right and duty of the State to guarantee these spaces for debate and collective construction. Peace does not end with the signing of agreements: peace is a social victory that demands not only the commitment of an entire society, but also the accompaniment of the international community.

Translated by Emily Schmidt of FOR’s Colombia team.