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The peace agreement between the FARC rebels and the Colombian government is a major achievement, but will take a while to implement and sustain, says Professor Justin Podur

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GREGORY WILPERT, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert, coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. June 23 is a historic day for Colombia and also for Latin America more generally. The continent’s longest-running civil war is coming to an end. That is, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC, and the government of Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos signed a ceasefire agreement in Havana, Cuba on this day. The ceasefire agreement is a culmination of nearly four years of negotiations and the peace agreement itself will be signed a month later, on July 23. With us to discuss the significance of the ceasefire and of the peace agreement is Justin Podur. Justin is a regular writer on Colombia and is associate professor at York University’s faculty for environmental studies. He joins us from Toronto, Canada. Thanks for being on the program, Justin. JUSTIN PODUR: Thanks. It’s a good day to be here. WILPERT: Yes. It’s really quite momentous. And, well, just, let’s start with that, actually. That is, what do you make of this agreement that is an agreement that was reached after four years of negotiations. How important is it for Colombia? What do you think it will mean? Just, you know, kind of the highlights of what you think this really means for Colombia. PODUR: Well, I was just looking on El Tiempo, which is one of the national newspapers, and I was just seeing, people are apparently in different cities putting RIP to the war signs, like, 1964-2016, please rest in peace Colombia civil war so there’s, you know, that–As someone who’s, I consider myself a friend of Colombia, you know, I, a lot of my best friends are Colombian. I’ve been there many times and I, you know, have followed this for a long time, I actually can’t not be emotionally affected. With all the fears and all the opposition and all of the caveats it’s just, overall just such an incredibly exciting moment in history to see this agreement. One thing about it that I think–Colombia’s been through several different peace agreements, none of which have actually succeeded, really, including one in the FARC that ended in the early 2000s. And one of the reasons that, one of the reasons that this agreement is different is because it does get into some of the underlying issues, like land reform and inequality, that were driving the conflict all along for these decades. And so, the idea that there’s a social and political attempt to address the real, root causes is a big part of what’s exciting about this. But also, you know, the fact that it took four years isn’t, I don’t think, a bad thing. It’s a 40-plus year-long conflict. I mean, people date it from 1964 but you could also date it from 1948, in which case it’s even longer, one of the longest-running conflicts in the world. And so, taking four years to come to an agreement like this isn’t necessarily that long and isn’t necessarily that bad of a thing. So, I’m viscerally very excited and I think, when reading the fine print or, you know, the summaries and following the process all throughout these years, I actually think there is a good chance that this could hold, and I think that’s part of why it’s having the resonance that it’s having right now. WILPERT: Well, you know, that’s one of the things I wanted to focus on first is a little bit also the whole process itself, how it came about. And then we’ll delve into a little bit, maybe in the second part, in the details of the actual agreement. So, just looking at the process itself, one of the things that also seemed to be important was the involvement of other countries and particularly involved, of course, was Cuba, since that’s where the negotiations took place and the deal was signed. My question would be, so, what were the different roles, for example, of the United States, also, Venezuela and Cuba in this process and making sure this came to a conclusion? PODUR: Well, I think that this process is in, it’s part of a longer term thing that’s been going on in the Americas and, you know, again, these are processes that have had their ups and downs and arguably they’re having a, you know, [threat at] the Americas. In the short term they’re on a downswing. But on the long term, over the last few decades Latin America has been asserting a degree of independence and a degree of sovereignty and asserting their right to control their own affairs in ways that, despite various coups and attacks by the United States, the United States has been forced to accept this reality, I think, in some ways. And part of what’s been going on simultaneously with the peace process in Colombia is of course this opening between Cuba and the United States. And again, there’s lots of cautions and lots of caveats and lots of caveats, qualifiers, you can put on this process, but at the end of the day this is, there is some kind of detente happening between the United States and Cuba and Cuba hasn’t had to surrender as a result, in order to get this, but on the other hand I, again, debatable, we can debate this, but I view it as the US being forced to accept this reality in some ways. And so, Cuba was able to play this incredibly constructive role precisely because it had this credibility as a country that has done a social revolution that is based on some of the principles of trying to, trying to provide for its people. That was what the Cuban Revolution was about in the ’60s and that’s what, those are the same ideas motivating many of the armed struggles in Latin America, including Colombia. And so that history means a lot, and that stance and that position of independence in the Americas has meant a lot, and that was why they had the credibility to host the talks. And then on the other side, because of this opening between the US and Cuba the US has been able to also get in there and get involved and we can, if you want to talk about the politics of the opposition, I actually think that at some key points when the local, Colombian opposition, which had traditionally been very close to the United States, was trying to spoil the deal I think the United States did get involved in order to get them to stand down, and if they keep that up then there’s hope that this peace deal, again, there’s more hope that the peace deal could hold. WILPERT: Well, that was actually going to be my next question, was [crosstalk] precisely– PODUR: [crosstalk]–Oh, perfect– WILPERT: –the effort of former President Álvaro Uribe to sabotage the process on several occasions. Do you think now that he’s been sidelined or is, do you think that he will be able to somehow play interference in the implementation of this agreement still? PODUR: Well, as far as I can tell, I was looking at what he was saying today, and what he was saying today is, I’m not going to react today. I’m going to wait and see. And I think that, you know, I don’t think there’s–I think it’s far too soon to say that Uribe or the constituency that he represents, which is a substantial, you know, body of opinion. They have tremendous power and influence in the army and the intelligence services, in the elected government, in the business community and so, and for that matter, in the paramilitary organizations and the illegal networks. All of these things are realities and they are real problems, and they’re not going to go away just because this deal has been signed, and Uribe’s not going to go away because this deal has been signed. So no, I think there is still considerable capacity to spoil this deal, and I think paying attention to Uribe is, and what he’s doing, is going to be a good indicator of how much potential there is to spoil this deal going forward for years. Having said that, you know, having been following this through this process, and as you said, Uribe’s own moves and attempts to sink the deal at various parts of the process, I’ve seen, you know, Uribe going to the embassy having had one position and then coming out and saying, look, I’m going to wait and see, after the meeting. So it’s clear to me, whatever the longer game is, for now the United States has been using its influence with that Colombian right wing, led by and symbolized by Uribe, to actually support this deal. WILPERT: That, of course, talking about Uribe leads us also to another issue, which is the continuing presence of political violence and of paramilitary forces, death squads, in Colombia, and their, of course, interference in any kind of agreement. And to such a large extent, the details of the agreement will play into this. That is, you know, what kinds of protections that the FARC will receive from the government as a condition for laying down their arms. from what you know of the agreement, and particularly the protections that the government is promising the FARC, what do you think about, I mean, the role of the paramilitaries and of continuing political violence. Is that going to decrease? Is that in any way going to go away as a condition or as a key factor for guaranteeing this peace process? PODUR: This was something that has been delaying the talks and the conclusion of the talks for over a year, longer than a year, which is the question of the paramilitaries, the question of what’s going to happen when the FARC actually lays down their arms. So, the specific clauses in the agreement have to do with the idea of a, of certain zones of the country where the FARC will concentrate, that’s what they’re saying. They’ll go to these specific kind of safe zones and they’ll kind of slowly disarm and emerge from these zones as unarmed civilians and so that–and there’s going to be international monitoring and so on. So, as a plan it seems to be a pretty good kind of phased, monitor-able plan that was lacking in the previous iterations. So, everybody looks back to the ’80s, one of the peace processes of the ’80s, during which a lot of the guerrillas became political activists and politicians. They created a party called the Unión Patriótica and that, that’s the example that you’ll hear or you’ll read in the Colombian media, that people are saying they don’t want a repeat of the Unión Patriótica, which was that thousands of Unión Patriótica activists were killed by paramilitaries that are linked to the state and criminal organizations linked to the state in this way. And so, they do seem to have built mechanisms into the agreement for trying to avoid a repeat of the Unión Patriótica, you know, politicide, some people have called it a politicide, but of this, you know, these systematic massacres of thousands of these activists. On the, you know, your bigger question about whether political violence is going to stop or whether paramilitarism is going to stop, there are some things in the agreement about how the state is committing to stop all relations with paramilitaries, but if you study the Colombian state and what’s been happening over the past decades, that’s not a thing that can be turned off nearly so easily. Paramilitarism is something that has thoroughly infiltrated the state. There was a very famous scandal about a decade ago now, I think, called the parapolítica scandal, where a lot of the politicians in the ruling party had signed pacts with paramilitary leaders to assassinate their rivals and engage in all kinds of other crimes. And so, paramilitarism is not something that can easily be turned off or gotten rid of, but the grounds for optimism here have to do mainly with the fact that the agreement does offer specific mechanisms to avoid a repeat of the past Unión Patriótica-type scenario. WILPERT: Okay. Well, unfortunately we’ve run out of time for this first segment, but we’re going to have a second one. We’ll talk about the other aspects of the deal. So thanks, Justin, for joining us for this first part, and thank you for watching the Real News Network.

Part 2

GREGORY WILPERT, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert, coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. June 23 is a historic day for Colombia because FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos are signing a ceasefire agreement in Havana, Cuba on that day. The agreement is a culmination of nearly four years of negotiations and the peace agreement will be signed a month later. So, with us today for the second part of this interview is Justin Podur. In the first part we discussed the process itself, and in the second part we will go into the details of the agreement. Justin is a regular writer on Colombia and associate professor at York University’s faculty of environmental studies. He joins us from Toronto, Canada. Thanks, Justin, for being on the program again. JUSTIN PODUR: Thank you. WILPERT: So, let’s look at the details of the agreement a little bit. IT was supposed to cover five major areas: the land reform, political participation, illegal drugs, victim restitution and the ceasefire and the [publication] of the agreement. So, let’s begin with the last part which we already talked about in the first segment, that is, the ceasefire and the issue of laying down arms. One of the things is, of course, that the FARC is going to turn into a political party. So how do you think this is going to look? I mean, you said earlier that they’re going to be going into special zones, that way they would be protected, but how would they become involved on a national level if they’re involved in, if they’re limited to these zones? How is this going to be put into practice? PODUR: Well, I think the main answer to that question is gradually. So, I think part of the, the first step is to try to ensure that the security of, or the, yeah, the safety and the security of these former combatants is guaranteed, to prevent a kind of repeat of the scenario of the Unión Patriótica which we discussed in the earlier segment, in which thousands of these former guerrillas who had joined politics were killed by right-wing forces linked to the state. So, this plan for keeping them safe as they lay down their arms and re-integrate into civilian life is a prerequisite for them being able to participate in politics. The other important prerequisite I think is the idea of transitional justice. So, as, you know, people know if they follow Colombia at all, one of the most unpopular things that FARC did was to kidnap civilians. You know, they did other things that were very unpopular, but the kidnapping and other crimes against Colombian civilians made them extremely unpopular for a long time and among a lot of Colombians. And so that, the idea of some kind of restitution for victims and some kind of justice while simultaneously not being so punitive that FARC could never sign the deal or that it would be like some kind of, sign the deal and everybody just goes to jail, isn’t, or, you know, would have turned it into a surrender. So, this is a negotiated peace agreement, so the question of justice became a kind of a complicated and thorny and interesting one, and I think it was resolved in an interesting way. So, a lot of the guerrillas, former combatants, will have to do community service which, again, has the potential to be something that helps with integration into civilian life. There will be, you know, many opportunities to cooperate with the system so that we can find out exactly what happened. There are other complications with this, though, having to do with the question of paramilitarism and other forms of political violence, where unless those issues are addressed you could get into a kind of a selective justice scenario in which bigger crimes conducted by bigger criminals closer to the state go unpunished and undiscussed while the ex-guerrillas get punished. So, there’s a lot of things to be resolved. Implementing the accords is going to be a long and very, it’s going to require the same amount of care and time as I think the negotiations did. So, but, you know, having said all that, I do think it’s possible, and I think that this agreement shows that this parties to the conflict also think that it’s possible. WILPERT: Well, let’s look at another major issue which you also addressed in this first segment, which is the importance of the land reform. Because, as people as often said, the inequality in Colombia was one of the main driving forces behind the civil war. So, what does the land reform say in this agreement? What does it look like and to what extent is it [inaud.] do you think address the issue of inequality in Colombia? PODUR: Wow. Again, this is, it’s something that has come up in different forms in different agreements and it’s again based on zones, based on specific territories for, like, yeah, territorially specific land reform zones. So, again, there’s a lot to be done in terms of mapping this onto the actual territory and what it’s going to actually mean and the details of this are actually part of what’s contested and what, you know, what has sunk previous accords is, the right wing argues that you’re going to give a bunch of people land for having taken up arms, and that is something that the right wing can’t countenance. But, to what extent can this land reform address inequality in Colombia? Well, you know, I read and I would highly recommend to the extent that it’s available in English, like, an agrarian economist named Hector Mondragon, and he is always analyzing the agrarian question and the agrarian issue of Colombia, and over the past few decades the agrarian economy in Colombia has suffered a lot of blows, and not least of which because of all the free trade agreements that have been signed and the movements towards, you know, so-called neoliberal, an economic model of neoliberalism which involves concentration of land in few hands, the production of commodity, you know, as opposed to subsistence agriculture, and, you know, the illicit production of especially coca but also opium poppy. So, there’s a whole bunch of agricultural, massive agricultural problems that I believe the armed conflict has prevented from being addressed. And so it’s not just the nature of the accords and the kind of land reform, zones of land reform, reserves that are envisioned in the agreement, but also just the very fact of the possibility that there could be peace in the countryside means that peasants and peasant organizations might be able to start to address the agrarian question in a much more systematic way that offers, I think, a lot of hope. WILPERT: Well, there’s actually a lot more issues we could get into, but I think we’re basically at time now. So, thanks so much, Justin, for helping us understand a little bit about this process and about the historic importance of this ceasefire agreement that was made on June 23. So, thanks again for being on the program. PODUR: Thank you very much. WILPERT: And thank you for watching the Real News Network.


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Justin Podur is an author and Associate Professor at York University's Faculty of Environmental Studies, and one of the organizers in the campaign to free Tarik and John Justin. Podur is the author of Haiti's New Dictatorship (Pluto Press 2012) and has contributed chapters to Empire's Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan (University of Toronto Press 2013) and Real Utopia (AK Press 2008).