Colombia: The meaning of the peace process

Historical events were plentiful in Colombia this past year: agricultural strikes, peace negotiations, people’s assemblies, large student demonstrations — in short, dynamism in social movements. Although the upsurge has not been massive enough to change the balance of power, it has been enough to give everyone a glimpse of the path toward hope for this country’s people, for whom hope up to now has been denied.

Peace negotiations

For more than a year, representatives of the FARC-EP (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia-People’s Army) and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos have met in Havana, Cuba, for negotiations leading toward ending the armed conflict in this Andean country.

The talks began with the task of finding a “General Agreement for ending the conflict and building a stable and lasting peace.” But they are not merely conversations between opposing forces trying to reach a consensus. They reflect Colombia’s harsh reality that affects the vast majority of the population. They expose the enormous inequalities that exist in this country, which make a peace with social justice impossible. They also expose the lack of democratic guarantees for those who oppose the neoliberal policies that the U.S. imposes and the national government implements.

The armed insurgency waged by the FARC-EP, as well as the ELN (the National Liberation Army), are simply the expression of a people who face so much poverty, hunger and misery, with no other possibility of waging struggle. In Colombia, the struggle for human, social and labor rights is paid for with blood and with one’s life, as demonstrated by the hundreds of thousands of deaths of social and human rights activists, peasants, Afro-Colombians, students and trade unionists.

That is why this peace process is aimed at the entire Colombian population. The FARC has even created a page on the Internet “mesadeconversaciones.com.co” where the proposals not only can be read, but where they invite the general public to write their comments and suggestions. FARC representatives at the negotiating table study these comments and incorporate them into their proposals to the government. From the table they also made a call to hold forums on specific themes in Colombia to encourage active participation in the negotiations.

Of the six points on the agenda for the discussions, only the first two have been completed: (1) comprehensive agricultural development policy, (2) political participation, (3) end of the conflict, (4) solution to the problem of illicit drugs, (5) victims and (6 ) implementation, verification and endorsement,

Each step of the talks has been hampered by the government’s clear reluctance to achieve a solution other than that the FARC-EP unilaterally lay down its weapons. On the one hand, the government has refused to end the armed confrontation while carrying out the peace process. On the other hand, it has not allowed an open dialogue between citizens and insurgent forces.

Only very recently, on Oct. 1, was an interview from Cuba by journalist Antonio Caballero with FARC spokespeople Pablo Catatumbo and Ivan Marquez broadcast on Colombian television on the program “Las Claves” on the Capital Channel. In this interview they explained to the Colombian people how the discussions have developed. (canalcapital.gov.co)

National agricultural strike

When a major “National Agrarian and Popular Strike” started in Colombia on Aug. 19, it exposed the great need for an agricultural policy that benefits the people, that is, agrarian reform, the first item on the agenda for the negotiations.

While the problem of land tenure has been central to the conflict, the approval of the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. in May 2012 has worsened the economic situation, especially for the Afro-Colombian, Indigenous and peasant populations. The increased cost of transport and production materials, the flood of cheap goods from the U.S. that compete with Colombian products, etc., are reminiscent of how the implementation of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) between Mexico and the U.S. provoked the uprising in Chiapas in January 1994. The consequence of NAFTA was the destruction of Mexican agriculture, throwing millions into extreme poverty and migration.

In all sectors of the Colombian peasantry, a deep and growing dissatisfaction finally exploded in August.

“The national agrarian strike is the result of the social discontent about the calamitous situation in which most of the rural population in Colombia live … due to the signing of the FTA that was designed primarily to benefit foreign capital and a few national oligarchs who are associated with them, said Jairo Jurado, member of the Patriotic March.’’ (andes.info.ec)

Peasant organizations defending their lands against the impact of FTA launched the strike with blockades of major highways. In a few days they extended the action throughout the country, and other sectors of the population — unions, students, etc. — joined in.

Santos’ government responded with massive violence. By Sept. 8, it had committed 660 cases of human rights violations, wounded 485, killed 12 peasants, made 262 arbitrary arrests, and threatened and harassed 52 people.

Although Santos tried to downplay the strike and nationwide struggle, by the end of August, “more than 300,000 people, including peasants, Indigenous, Afro-Colombians, workers, transport workers, students, and Colombians in general, were active in this just struggle.” (viacampesina.org )

After blockading for 21 days, the peasants ended the national strike but not the demonstrations. The National Agricultural and Popular Committee for Dialogue and Agreement (MIA) was formed to engage the national government in a dialogue. Despite several meetings with the government, Santos’ administration has yet to fully respond to the needs and the proposals of the MIA. The convening organizations say that the measures granted by the government have been insufficient and that the government speaks and promises but does not deliver. One of the demands of the strike was to “suspend and review, together with the organizations of small and medium producers, the free trade agreements with the United States, European Union, Korea and other countries.” (viacampesina.org)

The government’s response has been instead to intensify the criminalization of social protest in general. For a long time the Colombian government has accused leaders and social, student and union activists of being members of the guerrilla movement. Many women and men have been killed by paramilitaries, police or military forces. There are more than 10,000 political prisoners. Many people aren still missing and being threatened.

The Santos government wants to erase this reality and come up with a new face after the terrible rule of its predecessor, the paramilitary President Alvaro Uribe. But the situation has not only remained the same, it has been made worse by the intensified invasion of transnational corporations, particularly from the U.S., and the subsequent theft of lands from Afro-Colombians, the Indigenous and peasants.

One of the latest incidents that has outraged the people is that on Aug. 25 the government arrested and imprisoned Huber Ballesteros Gómez, a union leader who was a national spokesman for the MIA, Vice President of FENSUAGRO (the National Unitary Agricultural Union Federation) and member of the National Patriotic Board of the Political and Social Movement-Patriotic March, who was falsely accused of the crimes of rebellion and terrorism. Unions and other activists launched a national and international campaign demanding the immediate release of Ballesteros.

This is the real government response to the just demands of the Colombian people.

Therefore, it is essential that international progressive movements follow closely the peace process of the Colombian people and reject the violence of the state against the popular sectors. And those in the U.S. should demand that Washington end its military aid to the Colombian military machine.