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Slow peace or 'express peace': What kind of peace is possible in Colombia?

Jenny Pearce
Professor of Latin American Politics and? Director of the International Centre for Participation? Studies (ICPS), University of Bradford
Jenny Pearce

Jenny Pearce

Ivan Marquez, the FARC negotiator has rejected what he called 'express peace'. The government on the other hand is hoping that the end of the armed conflict could be negotiated in 8 to 12 months. In the opening speeches on 17 October in Oslo to a global audience he could address for the first time, Marquez caused consternation when he suggested that the FARC might want to go beyond the tight schedule and the five negotiating points carefully agreed during the secret pre-negotiation talks. These five points (rural development policy, political participation, ending the conflict, the illicit drug problem and victims' rights) are in themselves very significant, and one of the thorniest, the land question, was selected as the first item for discussion after the transfer to Havana in November. However, Marquez made it clear that for the FARC, the issue of land could not be reduced to the Restitution of Land and Rural Development Law designed by the government. He wanted to put on the agenda the 'suelo, subsuelo and sobresuelo', which means the wide areas of landownership, mining and energy, agro industry and forestry, the role of multinationals and foreign investment. In other words, the very development model of Colombia. This wider agenda would most probably scupper the prospects of an accelerated move to peace.

However, we know that Marquez used his moment on the global stage to communicate big messages to a wider audience rather than announce a real shift in the negotiating agenda. Other messages were that the FARC did not come to the table from a sense of military weakness, to negotiate the 'paz de los vencidos' but rather they would negotiate the 'paz de justicia social'. Alfredo Molano wrote afterwards in El Espectador: 'Una negociacion sobre intereses que durante medio siglo se han tratado de resolver a balazos no podria haber comenzado con besos'. Nevertheless, Marquez makes us reflect on what can be expected from the peace talks and what kind of peace is possible in Colombia.

Colombians are desperate to end the violence which has overwhelmed their country for decades. The former period of 'La Violencia', was ended in the late 1950s with a peace pact between the Conservative and Liberal Party elites, which ushered in a political agreement to alternate in power, known as the Frente Nacional (FN), which lasted formally from 1958-1971 and informally beyond that. This dramatically reduced the inter-party violence. However, a new violence emerged as guerrilla groups were founded to contest the post 'La Violencia' social and political order, influenced by varied social and ideological drivers. The FN ushered in a modernisation of the Colombian economy which accelerated the population shift from rural to urban centres, but it exacerbated the problem of concentration of land ownership and the social inequalities which today make Colombia the third most unequal country in Latin America and one of the most unequal in the world.

Social, economic and political exclusion lie behind the violence which has shaken the country, but do not explain it entirely. The mechanisms of the reproduction of violence in Colombia are multiple. They include the army's role in scuppering previous peace efforts, the alliances of wealthy elites with private armed or paramilitary groups against the guerrilla threat, the rise of violent drug trafficking cartels and the criminalization of all armed groups as they have entered the drug trade. A dark cloud of massive human rights abuses against civilians hangs over the peace talks. A large number are women, many of them victims of sexual violence by all parties in the armed conflict; however their voices are not represented around the table. Indeed, there is only one woman in the delegation, Tanja Nijmeijer, the Dutch CARC combatant known as Alexandra, who was accepted round the table only at the last minute.

It is evident that the peace talks will not succeed if the entire agenda required to build sustainable peace is addressed. They must disappoint. The question is by how much? The issue of impunity and amnesty weighs heavily over the process. How can human rights be defended if they are to be traded for 'peace'? Can the negotiations persuade the FARC to trust the state to protect its militants who demobilise? The last time they attempted to build a political option, the Patriotic Union, an estimated 3,000 members were assassinated, and this casts another dark shadow over the negotiations for the FARC. This time, there are retired military around the table, they are part of the government negotiating team and this is a clever means to persuade the armed forces to 'buy into' this peace process. The talks must make it possible for the wider agenda laid out by Marquez to be struggled for politically once the ending of the armed conflict has been agreed. The FARC, with its own history of authoritarianism and abuse, will have to accept it is not the sole representative of the struggle for social justice. Over the last two decades, Colombia's social activism has come out of the shadow of the guerrilla forces and these voices are not round the table either.

The peace talks should be seen as only Phase One of the peace process. They must focus on the conditions for the laying down of arms. However, that does not mean that the wider agenda for peace should be postponed. The very debate the peace talks will open up will mean that excluded voices could be heard as never before. Other themes need to be discussed parallel with the formal talks, including the important issue of the rule of law. Violence, not war, is the opposite of peace and the talks will not in themselves put a stop to the multiple forms of violence which have come to be seen as 'normal' in many regions of Colombia. The drugs trade must be high on the agenda. Its persistence will scupper prospects for long term peace. And last, but by no means least, there is the question who will pay for the peace. Without productive futures demobilised armed actors will find little incentive to support the peace. Colombia's wealthy elites and foreign investors were once persuaded to pay a war tax. It is time for a peace tax to be collected. These are the agendas of the 'slow peace' which must end the intergenerational cycles of violence. It must begin while the 'express peace' brings an end to the war as quickly as possible.