Report: Sixth Conversatorio on the Colombian Peace Talks, London, 14 April 2014

Sixth Conversatorio on the Colombian Peace Talks

London, 14 April 2014

PDF available here.

Are Colombians ready for a peace process? This was the question which the 30 people who participated in the sixth conversatorio on the peace talks, on 31 March 2014, were left with. Analysis was provided by former student leader and Colombian writer – now Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck (University of London) – Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, with Andrei Gómez-Suárez (Researcher, Universities of Sussex and Oxford) moderating. To try to answer this question, the conversation between the participants went beyond an analysis of the circumstances of the ups-and-downs of Colombian electoral politics.

The starting point is to recognise that many people are deeply committed to peace. However, many Colombians are outraged at the behaviour of the guerrilla, and the Colombian government has not succeeded in persuading them of the legitimacy to negotiate. This demonstrates the validity of asking whether Colombians are ready for a peace process; but besides, four important events throughout 2014 so far reveal the many tensions that exist:

  1. The revelations about the monitoring of the government’s negotiating team and certain members of the State by some members of the Army;
  2. The dismissal of the mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro;
  3. The results of recent parliamentary elections which elected the Congress which will have to implement the peace accords; and
  4. The debate about ownership of rural land in Colombia and illicit crops, which involves confronting the current model of economic development and the traditional concept of private property.

Petro’s dismissal begs the questions whether what we are experiencing is history is repeating itself, thus justifying the violence from the institutionalised extreme right which caricatures the Colombian left as a “Castro-Chavismo” pawn. Consequently, the implementation of a potential peace deal with the FARC requires (1) recognising that the Colombian right exists; (2) that it is neither marginalised nor controlled, bearing in mind the evidence that suggests that sectors of the extreme right exercise power over the Colombian army; and (3) that the war has corrupted Colombian national institutions, making it necessary to reform and purify them.

The decision of Inspector General (Procurador) against the Mayor of Bogotá that resulted in his dismissal has been interpreted by many sectors as an attack on popular will. In this context the left’s poor participation in the recent elections has been noted (the abstention rate in Bogotá surpassed 65%). It will be hard to convince certain sectors of the left that the negotiations in Havana are the gateway to a democratic peace, while elements still exist in State institutions, for whom a political left with real possibilities of gaining power, has to cease to exist, by hook or by crook.

The left’s poor results in the last elections, however, show the importance of creating a coalition between centre-left parties and those on the democratic right who are working on issues of environmental justice, food security and climate change, among others. This is a must for effective implementation of any peace agreements.

Caution was expressed that the peace talks could continue to lack legitimacy insofar as they remain in the hands of exclusively military-economic elites without accommodating Afro-Colombian, indigenous and small-farmer participation.

Nevertheless, it is important to recognise the steps forward; for example, the joint statement at the end of round 22 of the negotiations, according to which the negotiators have “made substantial advances towards agreement about illicit drugs”, demonstrates that the parties are in one mind when it comes to re-evaluating the military approach to a social problem, which needs to be addressed on a global scale through to the local. Furthermore, the decision of President Santos to revive the National Peace Council, the declaration of intent to create a Truth Commission after an agreement is signed, and the debate about a model of transitional justice, manifest the willingness to establish State policy of peace.

Thus, there are three major challenges on the background of the current rounds of negotiation:

  1. Security, the fundamental basis to build confidence and secure adherence to the agreements;
  2. Justice, which should guarantee respect for human rights and strengthen the rule of law;
  3. Democratic civilian participation, where civil society may feel it has an active role in peacebuilding.

In conclusion, it is not easy to establish if Colombian society is prepared to accompany the peace process. Consequently it is necessary to generate and strengthen spaces for dialogue so that civil society actors may contribute to the construction of peace, by establishing alternative initiatives. International accompaniment and national support are the keys to success. Additionally, while the negotiating teams agree how to bring the armed conflict to an end, it is necessary to work on implementing structural reforms.

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An (unintentional) façade of democratic debate, by Jonathan Newman

An (unintentional) façade of democratic debate

 Jonathan Newman

Associate Tutor in Anthropology

University of Sussex

E: J.M.B.Newman@sussex.ac.uk

In October 2012, Par Engstrom and Andrei Gomez-Suarez organised a roundtable discussion on the Colombian peace process at the UCL Institute of the Americas.[1] Since then, a series of similar events have continued the discussions through the year. I see a growing consensus among attendees that I have talked to that the talks in Havana will culminate in a signed agreement between the Colombian government and FARC.  The positive enthusiasm at these events contrasts with the slow process in Havana in which no substantial details have emerged and nothing will be agreed until everything is agreed.

In the midst of this UK-based activity, the Colombian state, in the form of the Ambassador, consular staff and occasional political allies, has sought to engage first hand in the discussions. Their attendance is augmented by a highly approachable and consultative approach whereby these representatives of the Colombian state will, to the best of my knowledge, talk to anyone attending. I personally believe that this approach is a different way of doing politics than most people are used to from the Colombian Government and that it is an effort to move from elitist towards more democratic political change.  My observation is that they want the debates and discussions to take place, and they want to explain the policies and actions of the Colombian government and to encourage participation of all those with an interest to participate in changing Colombia for the better.

Of course by being approachable and by seeking opinion they are also putting themselves in the line of criticisms that would never have come if they had maintained a distance and shown no interest in what anyone thought. My commentary will shortly exploit this very weakness, but before I do that I wish to make it clear that the critique is not looking at individual political motives nor is it a repeat of the mantra of a criminal Colombian state. Instead I am trying to see an emergent discourse within the new consultative approach.

I, like many other people following these debates through the polite ambiance of governmental, academic and institutional forums of the South-East of England, am beginning to form an opinion, not just about the progress in the peace talks but essentially about the current Colombian administration too.  Personally, I am finding that my critical capacity (which often is in overdrive) is being replaced by the belief that the government has the intellectual and political capacity to bring a peace deal to the Colombian people that will not only bring to the end 60 years of conflict but also transform the Colombian state into a far less corrupt and more socially benign authority. Note my position, I believe that the Santos administration, not FARC, nor any other body, can bring the peace deal.  As I have got to know the protrusions of that state that interact with me, I am growing to trust them.

What stands out in all the talking about ‘the talks’ is that the identifiable and transparent presence of the Colombian state is not paralleled by an identifiable and transparent representation of FARC; unlike Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, there is no political wing here engaged with us chattering classes.  While the position of the Santos administration is accessible and, at times, professionally presented, there is no similar communication with FARC. Their proscription forms a shadow that follows our chatter silently around the room; FARC cannot be present, they remain outlaws.

There is occasionally the surreptitious presence of certain refugees. Here, those in the know of particular complex Colombian histories might suspect (or be silently certain) that specific people in the room are closer to the FARC or another leftist organisation than is transparently clear.  Such it is that that we find ourselves immersed in insinuation and gossip, pointing a finger of political association, which in these times of liminality, translates into their past or future guilt, heroism or danger. As we try to analyse what is happening we repeat the very format that led to the presence of so many Colombian refugees in London in the first place. Once again the consequences of political outlaws is that their views cannot be as openly expressed as those of the Colombian state.

Our talks about ‘the talks’ are therefore refracted by the absence of true debate and the remnants of solipsism.  The performance of transparency by agents of the Colombian government is but one side of the coin, on the other side are the more concealed and disguised performances by all interested parties, including the Colombian government.

The distribution of power, between FARC and the Santos administration, in courting the opinion of international government, media, academics, business, security analysts, NGOs and so on is exemplified by the events in the last week of September 2013. When the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a US civil rights leader and Democrat, announced to the international press that he was on a mission to release US hostage Kevin Scott Sutay, I initially was trying to work out how this apparently random event had come together. The news revealed that it was a largely pragmatic set of events whereby Jackson had been at a meeting of black leaders in Cartagena where he offered to help release the hostage, upon which FARC immediately invited him to Cuba. Santos promptly tweeted back an emphatic ‘No!’ and, at the time of writing, the story runs on with Jackson saying he is going to help anyway.  Behind those events lies another story.

For most of his life the Reverend Jesse Jackson has had a magnetic attraction towards cases of injustice and an equally strong pull towards the media. The FARC-Jackson event brought significant international press coverage, more importantly it hooked the US networks too.  Jackson had a cause to relieve suffering somewhere in the world accompanied by the media attention that, like many others, he relishes. Meanwhile FARC, for the first time since the talks began, had some celebrity coverage.  If Jesse Jackson was talking to the “leftists” (as much US media labelled FARC) then he was also beginning to legitimise them as something other than a terrorist organisation. Moreover, Jackson was not demanding that FARC release the US hostage, instead he was working with them to help the release. Jackson took the message to the US population that FARC did not want to keep US citizens captive. The message stood in contrast to the Santos administration that had a far more circumspect approach to the issue; for the Santos administration, beyond the announcements of clear government lines of practice being drawn, dealing with FARC remained in the realm of closed-door politics.

At about the same time, Alejandro Eder, the director for the Colombian Agency for Reintegration, met the Pope (President Santos had also met His Holiness only a couple of weeks earlier), presenting the pontiff with a Colombian football shirt signed by none other than the great, and internationally recognised, Valderrama.  That week, in the battle of the brigadas for an international platform, the Colombian government sided with the head of the Catholic Church and FARC grabbed an Afro-American civil rights campaigner (possibly creating  the first prime time appearance of an Afro leader at the Havana talks).

The lines between power and resistance, the haves and have-nots, the Nation and the civilian, empowered and marginalised, were clearly demarcated in the independent international performances of the Santos administration and FARC. The Colombian government was following established norms of international diplomacy and FARC were left with a very different engagement with international commentators and analysts – the Pope had not invited FARC to the Vatican to present him with the football shirt of the nation, and Santos had not resorted to a moment of media opportunity by showcasing Jesse Jackson alongside his political agenda. Like the talks in London, the international establishment was predominantly being courted by just one party of the negotiating table, with the other party manoeuvring for space on the sidelines. As if to emphasise how the dynamics of public engagement had not changed between the two sides, FARC’s entry into the media spotlight was through the illegitimacy of armed kidnapping and the government through the legitimacy of state protocols.

So while it is a positive and worthwhile initiative for the Colombian government in the UK to meet with people, regardless of public stature or influence, as one of those people I would welcome an opportunity for a mechanism to be put in place whereby representatives of FARC could be officially invited to these meetings as well, not just to give a speech but to mix with and listen to those attendees, regardless of their public stature or influence.  Both sides of this bloody conflict need to be able to openly demonstrate their humility and willingness to participate in wider debate.

Without such a measure, and with the continuation of a largely one-sided public consultation/public relations exercise there are two interrelated consequences.  Firstly, it suggests that the illegality of FARC prevents the organisation from being able to engage in similar public interactions. If the thinking of the Colombian government is that conflict is better dealt with through debate and democratic politics than through resort to violence then, given that FARC currently has no recognised political representatives who can legally take part in such public discussions, how are they going to begin? One factor guiding the Northern Ireland peace process was that Sinn Fein and the Unionists had a good understanding of public opinion because of years of interacting with the public through consultation and public relations; FARC do not have such legally established mechanisms. Gerry Adams could visit the White House prior to the agreement being signed; can FARC representatives do the same?

The second consequence is possibly more disturbing.  As the Colombian government attends successive meetings, consultations and inter-state forums in many parts of the world they are simultaneously promoting their own political initiatives. In the absence of scandals over parapolitics and the killing of trade unionists that impaired previous administrations relations with US Congress and Europe, the current administration have an air of legitimacy in the International Community that has evaded many predecessors.  They are counselling a particularly wide range of opinion, while demonstrating that they are a responsible government that is trying to find the best means possible to end the conflict. As I said before, the presentation we get is that they are trying to bring FARC to an agreement, not that two parties are negotiating.  In these circumstances if an agreement is not reached then FARC will have shown itself to be unwilling to participate in the type of democratic debate that the current government has taken great efforts to promote.

Moreover, a further continual theme coming from the Colombian government is the extent of criminality within FARC.[2] Here the government either ignores corruption and criminality within its own institutions or at best suggests that it is successfully containing these problems while promoting the idea of a high ratio of criminal, rather than political, actors, within FARC. FARC members remain an isolated force in the jungle unaccustomed to civilised society, illiterate and socially immature, and they face upon demobilisation either a difficult journey of reformation or the more tempting option of high earning criminality. A major challenge of the peace process, that the government presents us with is not moving FARC away from violent politics, instead the emphasis is on drawing these combatants away from violent criminality.

The line between the criminal and the political is being drawn and will be the post-Havana standard by which politics and violence is dealt with.  In such a scenario, if FARC do not sign an agreement then they will have demonstrated that their criminal interests exceed their ideological agenda – those who wish to carry on with armed action will be deemed criminals rather than political guerrillas.  If FARC do sign, whoever does not agree with the agreement once again becomes criminalised.  Some might object to this formula, but in the eyes of the international community who have for the past year been courted by the democratic aspirations of the Colombian government, and have already been informed about the problems of criminality within FARC, the formula makes sense.  Moreover, in the recent protests in Colombia the government made it very clear that they would not tolerate violence (by the protestors or anyone associated with the protest).  The line was drawn between political actions and violent actions; violence was deemed criminal not political.

We are moving from a ‘war on terror’ to a ‘war on crime’, where the political can be easily criminalised.  This might be a positive step forward, Colombia moves from a small war scenario to the state regaining the absolute legitimacy of force within its borders. However, with the international community seduced by Santos’ enthusiasts of democratic freedoms, those areas within Colombia that are defined as under criminal control could see as much military force as necessary used to ‘liberate’ the citizens without fear of international interference. In this scenario, like Sri Lanka, citizen casualties all disappear in a well-conducted news conference.

As I said earlier, I do not believe that this is another example of a criminal state or that the participation in debate and consultation by government representatives has a sinister motive. What I do believe is that the consequences of the current manner of political interaction means that FARC remain isolated and that the Colombian government is gaining more credibility and trust than is safe for the state that has not got an established history of respecting human rights.

Therefore I ask in this blog that the Colombian government publically announce the limits of force that they will use in order to tackle the expected criminality in locations with residual combatants.  For example, a statement condemning the strategy of the Sri Lankan government, as they cleansed areas occupied by remaining Tamil Tigers, would be an effect way of signalling the less barbaric intentions of the Colombian government. Additionally I ask, as the lines between violent criminality and politics are inscribed deeper into the social change agenda (against a background of increasingly legitimate state force), how will the Colombian government differentiate the violently political (which affects all democracies) from the violently criminal?

Finally, I would very much like the Colombian government to keep talking to everyone, in fact please extend the exercise, but please let the less than legal sides participate with this approach too; stop interfering with debate by confining them to the margins of the jungle.  Can we expand the guest lists so that we can share the wine and canapés with a broader spectrum of Colombian political opinion and, moreover, with a more openly representative reflection of ‘the talks’?

Jonathan Newman is a Phd candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex.  His research in Colombia covers a range of themes including violence, conflict, coffee production and ethical trading.


[1] Engstrom Par and Andrei Gomez-Suarez “Colombia 2013: Towards ending the longest armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere?” UCL Institute of the Americas Policy Brief, London, Nov 28, 2012

The end of the armed conflict and endless social conflicts in Colombia

The end of the armed conflict and endless social conflicts in Colombia

 Andrei Gomez-Suarez

Associate Researcher

Centre for Criminology (University of Oxford)

National Centre for Historical Memory (Colombia)

Sussex Centre for Conflict and Security Research (University of Sussex)

Consultant in Conflict, Peace and Security

 Member of BACUP & ReD

E: ag210@sussex.ac.uk

T: @AndGomezSuarez

On 30 July 2013, I wrote a Spanish version of this article, which aims is to explain why after nine months of negotiations between the government of President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2014) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to end the half-century-long armed conflict, I believe peace is near in Colombia. This does not mean that I think that Colombian society will live without without conflict. On the contrary, Colombia will continue to experience serious social conflict, and perhaps more tensions will arise. Therefore, Colombians and friends of Colombia might have to join forces to seek structural solutions to economic inequality, political polarization, social exclusion and the transformation of cultural patterns that favour self-interest, unbridled consumerism and the pursuit of easy money.

The first reason for my optimism is based on the report of the National Centre of Historical Memory (CNMH) Basta Ya! published on 24 July 2013. There are many studies of the armed conflict in Colombia. Without being exhaustive, two studies that sought to make a diagnosis of the conflict at crucial moments in the history of Colombia come to mind. First, The Study on La Violencia by Guzmán, Fals Borda and Umana  was published in 1962 when no one wanted to talk about the killing of more than 200,000 people between 1948 and 1953. Second, the book Colombia: Violence and Democracy, edited by Gonzalo Sanchez as part of the Commission for the Study of Violence in Colombia, published in 1987, came out after the breakdown of the first negotiation attempt with FARC, but was written amidst the optimism of the Betancur-FARC peace process.

The difference between past efforts and the recent report of CNMH, a product of a six-year investigation led by Gonzalo Sánchez and stating that in Colombia there are 220,000 victims of armed conflict, is that the latter has an explicit recommendation to the President of Colombia: to recognize on behalf of the state that its agents have been responsible for serious human rights violations.[1] As a response to this recommendation, for the first time a Colombian President has recognized, on behalf of the state, the responsibility of its agents in gross human rights violations and in crimes against international humanitarian Law. President Santos did it, not only upon receiving the CNMH report, but also during the public hearing convened by the Constitutional Court on 25 July 2013 to discuss the Legal Framework for Peace. Such recognition is a sign that a sector of the Colombian establishment is committed to the success of the peace talks. This is my first reason for optimism.

However, for peace to be achieved, the other party is needed. In this case the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Therefore, the second reason for my optimism is based on the performance of FARC in the current negotiations. For further illustration, it is necessary to make a quick reference to two previous peace processes. First, during the peace process with Belisario Betancur and Virgilio Barco (1984-1987), the fragmentation of the Colombian establishment and the geopolitical context allowed the onset of the genocide of the Unión Patriótica (UP).[2] The destruction of the political platform launched by  the  FARC in 1985 sparked  the  FARC’s radicalization, hence the focus on a military strategy to take over power.. Second, during the peace process with Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002), both the establishment and FARC took advantage to gain political and military power and renounced  the goal of achieving negotiated peace. FARC made clear from the beginning of the negotiations that they were not to carry out open political activism; thus, they created the Clandestine Communist Party (PC4) and the Bolivarian Movement for the New Colombia (MBNC). Pastrana, meanwhile, sided with Washington to design Plan Colombia (which conceived of a radical modernisation of the Armed Forces to merge counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations), while paramilitary groups continued to mushroom throughout Colombian territory. In this context both sides opted for total war.

After eight years of war, the preliminary talks between Santos and FARC started. In 2012, in contrast with previous peace processes, FARC began formal negotiations militarily weakened, but politically strengthened. Few are willing to accept, but the FARC for at least the last 15 years have been building their own political networks through the work of the PC4 and the MBNC. As Eduardo Pizarro argues, since the 1980s FARC transformed themselves into an insurgency with a party.[3] Today, based on this transformation, some FARC commanders see that it is more likely to change Colombian society without arms. Ivan Marquez’s interview with Maria Jimena Duzán, published in Revista Semana on 23 February 2013, reveals that FARC members want to openly participate in legal politics and recognize they hold similar views about ending of the armed conflict with Army General Jorge E. Mora.[4] The attitude of FARC negotiators in Havana and FARC’s invisible political consolidation in some regions is the second reason for my optimism and it is linked with the third reason to which I turn next.

There is broad recognition by various sectors of Colombian society that to resolve social conflicts one must begin to address the abuses of the past. It is not enough to recognise the abuses or that the parties show willingness to build an inclusive and participatory political system. Concrete actions are needed to unleash dynamics in the present to allow the revival of past processes. The decision of the Administrative Supreme Court to restore the legal status of the UP, which was withdrawn in 2002 by a ruling of the Electoral Council based on the lack of support in the polls, is in my view an important step in this direction. The decision is important, not because the FARC will demobilize and automatically join the UP –to assume this is to ignore the complexity of the history of the UP – but because it shows that sectors within the judiciary are willing to contribute to open a space for victims to be protagonists in the reconstruction of Colombia’s social tissue through the rebirth of their initiatives.

Reactions to the decision of the Court, which complements several rulings related to the genocide of the UP – for example, the case of former Liberal MP César Pérez and paramilitary leader Hector Veloza (HH),[5] show the challenges that lie ahead. For example, according to El Espectador, some Court magistrates are seeking to reverse the ruling, while amongst UP members there is not unity about who should lead the project.[6] The foregoing shows that the space for the political participation of the UP will have to continue to be negotiated at different levels. In addition, victims’ organizations will have to reinvent politics in the present to survive in the future, hence avoiding condemning this historic victory to failure by being tied to the disputes of the past. The third reason for my optimism is that these processes are taking place.

In the current international context, peace negotiations are processes to repair the harm done to victims and to reintegrate into a model of society those who have traditionally felt excluded economically, politically, culturally and socially. I am optimistic that negotiations in Havana have been accompanied by major changes in the attitude of the state, the FARC and sectors of Colombian society. I want to believe that Colombia is moving toward the end of the armed conflict. However, other conflicts will not be resolved in the short term. Indeed, we may have new conflicts. This is not bad in itself. Conflicts and tensions are part of life itself, and are the constant materialisation of a changing world. What  is important is to seek to resolve such conflicts dialectically and not unilaterally by resorting to the power of weapons.


[1] Spanish version of the report available at: http://www.centrodememoriahistorica.gov.co/micrositios/informeGeneral/ (29 July 2013)

[2] See Gomez-Suarez, Andrei (2011) A Genocidal Geopolitical Conjuncture, DPhil thesis, Brighton: University of Sussex. Available at: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/6980/

[3] Eduardo Pizarro (2012) Las FARC (1949-2011) de guerrilla campesina a máquina de Guerra. Bogotá: Norma.