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Gregory Wilpert: As Colombia marks one-year anniversary of peace negotiations, both the FARC and government officials work to end decades-long conflict

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GREGORY WILPERT, VENEZUELANALYSIS.COM: Recently, on October 18, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the rebel group known as the FARC, marked the one-year anniversary of their agreement to hold peace negotiations that would put an end to a conflict that has lasted over 50 years and cost an estimated 600,000 lives.

While there have been many prior efforts to find a negotiated peace to what has been an immensely bloody conflict, this appears to be the first time in decades that negotiations might actually bring about peace in the near future. The Colombian government and the FARC have agreed to negotiate six issues: land reform, political participation, demobilization of the rebels, a solution to the drug trafficking problem, restitution to victims of the 50-year armed conflict, and putting the agreement to a national referendum.

About three months ago, negotiators announced that the first issue, land reform, had been resolved and that the negotiations would move on to the next issue, on political participation.

The initial agreement on land reform is an important milestone for a country that, according to official statistics, has the most unequal land distribution in the world, with 87 percent of peasants who have no land title at all. President Santos called the agreement on land issues “a fundamental step towards a final accord to put an end to half a century of conflict.” His head negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, expressed himself similarly:

HUMBERTO DE LA CALLE, HEAD OF GOVERNMENT’S NEGOTIATION TEAM (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The touchstone of the agreement is the reaffirmation of the dignity of the peasant family, a historical change, a rebirth of the Colombian peasantry that can come about with the end of the armed conflict.

WILPERT: It is the inequality in land distribution that lies at the root of Colombia’s civil war, which is also the longest civil war in recent Latin American history.

The peace negotiations, for which the recently deceased president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, was instrumental in getting started, are currently taking place in Cuba and also at times in Norway. The head negotiator of the FARC, Ivan Marquez, emphasized Chávez’s role:

IVAN MARQUEZ, HEAD OF FARC NEGOTIATING TEAM (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): President Chávez and Venezuela are playing for the homeland Colombia and for peace in the region. We have nothing but words of thanks for President Chávez.

WILPERT: The governments of Venezuela and Chile–a leftist and a right-wing government, respectively–are functioning as guarantors of the peace process.

So far, 15 cycles of negotiations have taken place and the parties are now discussing the terms for an agreement on the second point, on political participation.

MARQUEZ: This event of closing one thematic cycle is at the same time the opening of the transcendental debate about Colombian democracy.

WILPERT: Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, recently highlighted the importance of reaching an agreement on the second topic by November 18, which represents the one-year anniversary since the talks began in Cuba.

JUAN MANUEL SANTOS, COLOMBIAN PRESIDENT (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): November 18 is the anniversary since the beginning of the negotiations in Havana. I hope that between now and then we will be able to announce new results, that we can show to the Colombian people that we are advancing. It is important for the good of the process. I want to arrive at an agreement as soon as possible, so that never again there will be victims in Colombia.

WILPERT: The second point of the talks would deal with the rights of the FARC to reenter Colombia’s political process, their access to the media, and guarantees for their safety. One of the conditions for the negotiations, however, is that all preliminary agreements are kept confidential, so as to keep objections to the agreement from within the two camps during the negotiation process at a minimum. It is thus not possible to know exactly what has been agreed to so far.

The point about guaranteeing the safety of demobilized FARC combatants is a key issue, because in a peace agreement that was reached in 1990, demobilized rebels were later assassinated by the hundreds, which is also why it has taken so long to build trust and find a new path towards peace negotiations.

Given the history of failed peace negotiations in Colombia, it has been surprising to many observers of Colombia that President Santos should be so optimistic about reaching an agreement. Not only Santos has been optimistic, but so has the Colombian population, which, according to a poll conducted by RCN Television last year, 77 percent of the population support the negotiations and 54 percent believe that they will lead to an agreement.

The reason for why this seems to be the most promising effort for a peaceful resolution to this 50-year conflict is that both sides, the government and the rebels, seem to be clearer than ever that neither side can win the conflict by force of arms. That is, both sides are in a weaker position than they were just a few years ago and need a success in the negotiations in order to maintain their legitimacy. The FARC has been weakened due to the recent loss of many of its most important leaders. The government is in a weakened position because its conservative camp, which has governed Colombia for the past 12 years, is hopelessly divided between a reactionary right wing, represented by former president Alvaro Uribe, and a more neoliberal right wing, represented by the current president, Juan Manuel Santos.

Uribe’s more connected to the country’s landed aristocracy, its drug barons, and their brutal paramilitary forces. As such, he is completely opposed to the peace negotiations and to having friendly relations with neighbouring Venezuela.

ÁLVARO URIBE, FMR. COLOMBIAN PRESIDENT: The topic [of negotiations with the FARC] is a topic of the government that has dropped the topic of security, a government that has put an end to the dialog with the people of Colombia and substituted it for the dialog with terrorism. President Santos was the greatest opponent to the Chavista dictatorship, to win votes. But now in the government he has surprised us. He appears as the great sponsor of the Chavista dictatorship, as the one who legitimized Chávez as a promoter of peace with terrorists who Chávez always protected.

WILPERT: Santos, on the other hand, is more connected to the country’s urban aristocracy and its industrial class, for whom an end to the civil war would improve the country’s conditions for conducting business and for which a land reform would not mean the end of their privileges.

Despite the constant sniping from Uribe, a former boss and mentor of President Santos, it is clear that Santos is hoping to finalize a peace agreement before the presidential election in the middle of next year, so that the agreement could serve as a feather in his cap for his reelection campaign.

While enormous uncertainties remain and the process could still be derailed at any time, the fact remains Colombia simply has no other option than a negotiated settlement.

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Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.