There is one fundamental problem underpinning everything in Colombia, the exclusion of the majority from any real participation in political power. This is in turn articulated through two conflicts, the armed conflict and the social conflict.
The armed conflict is deeply rooted. The guerilla movements the FARC and the ELN have fought against the state for nearly 40 years. Colombia has the worst human rights violations in the Western hemisphere, with state sponsored paramilitary death squads assassinating between 5,000 and 8,000 victims annually. The social conflict includes the resistance of social movements and trade unions, that continue to fight back despite the state sponsored terrorism against them. Colombian society is deeply divided, with record levels of inequality, unemployment and poverty, further resistance is inevitable.
Colombia is in a state of civil war. For any peace proposal to work it has to be inclusive, it has to extend across both the armed conflict and the social conflict, it has to offer reconciliation and it has to embrace the ideal of social justice for the majority of Colombians.
Sadly the two separate talks between Colombia’s outgoing President Pastrana and the FARC and the ELN have both broken down. This is not new, although the degree of propaganda shaping international opinion is unprecedented. It is therefore all the more important to be clear what is at issue, both tactically and strategically. The Guardian, for example, is quite mistaken to blame FARC’s ‘traditionalists’ for breaking the talks. The FARC had made considerable concessions, but the point it did not concede was to agree a ceasefire while the government allows the paramilitaries to operate with impunity. It was Pastrana, under pressure from the USA, who unilaterally broke the talks, launching an invasion of the ‘zone for dialogue’ . The US and the Colombian armed forces believe they have the tactical advantage, and they want to make the most of it.
The Observer carried a comment from a former Director of the US Peace Corps, arguing that president elect Uribe Vélez ‘will need a lot of help’. Indeed, that is exactly what Bush is already giving him. US Ambassador Ann Patterson congratulated Uribe even before the result had been announced to the Colombian people. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Otto Reich, Reagan’s man on contra policy in Central America, rushed to Bogotá. Within days the US promised another $50 million for more helicopter gunships. Senior White House officials have been urging Colombia to double its spending on the war. The axis of evil is beginning to turn. Uribe will visit Bush on 20th June, followed by visits to Canada, France, Britain and Spain.
Before supporting calls for yet more aid to the Colombia state, complemented by pressure for direct UN involvement, we should think more deeply and strategically about why peace talks have failed. There are two key domestic reasons. Successive Colombian governments have entered into talks believing their enemy to be much weaker than it is, that the talks are about negotiating a surrender of the guerillas without any significant concessions on the government side being necessary. This is wrapped in the logic of war and psychology of the armed forces, but is far from the truth. The FARC in particular operates across the country, with bases in many countryside areas.
The second stumbling block: the guerillas include popular social and economic demands that the government is not prepared to, or is unable to, concede. The recent ELN – government talks in Cuba are a clear example of this. The ELN offered to end hostilities on the condition that the government would reopen schools and hospitals that have been closed in the last two years, and that it would pledge a 6 month freeze on prices for public utilities. But the demand to slash state expenditure is exactly what Pastrana agreed with the IMF in December 1999. Pastrana would have to break with the IMF to meet the guerillas’ demands, and the needs of Colombia’s poor majority, so the talks have broken down.
But the greatest mistake of all would be to believe that USA wants peace in Colombia. On the contrary, in the name of counter terrorism Bush is pushing the country ever deeper into war. US policy is driven by the need to break all resistance to its geo-strategic project of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, it is a policy of aggressive pacification, not peace. To paraphrase murdered Chilean singer Victor Jara, the USA will not let the Colombian people live in peace.
The issue for all of us who want to see peace in Colombia is therefore anti-imperialism. The peace talks have failed once again, but by mobilising against the imperialism of the USA and its allies we will help the real peace process.