Colombia: Agrarian question a challenge in peace talks

[Translation of an article from Carta Maior of São Paulo, Brazil, for October 25, 2012. See original here.]

By Marcel Gomes

In the face of slow progress in the negotiations between the government of Colombia and the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) in Oslo and Havana, economist Héctor-León Moncayo, a member of the Instituto Latinoamericano para una Sociedad y un Derecho Alternativos (ILSA), one of the most important NGOs in Bogotá, points out that the “Colombian agrarian question,” one of the reasons the insurgency exists, is also one of the main obstacles to the achievement of peace.

In the past few years, the country has seen a new wave of investment in agriculture and mineral extraction, threatening areas traditionally occupied by small producers and indigenous peoples. The greater part of the armed ranks of the FARC come from these sectors of society.

“I would say that it is impossible, and politically debatable, to take that model to the negotiating table, but it would also be stupid to attempt to ignore it completely. What is certain, and this has to do with the long-term challenge, is that a real solution to the armed conflict in Colombia requires facing profoundly the agrarian or rural question,” he tells Carta Maior. Read the exclusive interview below.


Carta Maior – There have been other peace talks in the past between the government of Colombia and the FARC. Is there a possibility of success now?

Héctor-León Moncayo – At the beginning of the ‘90s, several accords were signed, with more or less successful results, at least as concerns the demobilization and disarming of the organizations involved. Meanwhile, the situation has become completely different since then. Keep in mind that we are talking about an insurgency, FARC and ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional), with the deepest of campesino roots. The criteria for success or failure have become more complex. The simple conversion of an armed organization into a political party that acts by legal means cannot be considered as a result. That is why the previous negotiations between the governments and FARC and ELN failed. The agenda was always very broad and complex. Besides that, in the last attempt, the one in Caguán [between 1999 and 2002, during the administration of President Andrés Pastrama], there was a failure to sign a cease-fire beforehand. The actions of one and the other came to an unacceptable point. These days the problems are similar. But behind the speeches, there seem to be different attitudes, a more favorable disposition toward negotiating. Of course it is too early to make predictions. It all depends on how the process evolves, not so much on the evolution of the negotiations themselves, but how each of the actors works out the successive political moments of the country.

Why did President Santos and FARC agree to a dialogue?

In the case of Santos, there is a double political calculation. On the one hand, he considers FARC to be decimated militarily and defeated politically, and they will have to surrender. On the other hand, since he knows that he his promoting a neoliberal and extractivist model of development that has generated numerous social upheavals, and that the economy will probably be in crisis in a short time, the president hopes to neutralize protest with the illusion of peace. As for the insurgency, it is well to remember that it has accepted the possibility of a negotiated settlement since the mid ‘80s, rejecting in practice the goal of a revolutionary military victory, which was the model in Cuba and Nicaragua. So the question is reduced to the conditions for the negotiations, which had been sought all along. Even during the Uribe administration, something that is almost never remembered. The decision to negotiate now has a lot to do with Santos’ offer, which was backed and mediated by some currents of opinion, like Piedad Córdova’s Colombianas y Colombianos por la Paz

As proposals at the negotiating table, FARC wants to participate in the political life of the country and they demand agrarian reform. Would that kind of arrangement be possible? Would the large landowners accept it?

It is clear that there is a far-right opposition to the negotiating process, led by former President Uribe and with little support among Colombians. That opposition can be understood in part by its main social base, the land owners close to the drug traffickers and to the paramilitary, who are afraid of being sacrificed when the accords are reached. Beyond that, the macho and bellicose discourse behind many electoral gains, in which there are not many differences, and they are not very profound ones, from the government’s discourse. In it, the idea of agrarian reform is reduced to the restitution of lands and the granting of some campesino reserve areas. Only under pressure would the government agree to carry out any of these land grants. As for political participation, the argument seems to be only among some leaders, who could be accused of crimes against humanity. And consequently, for the far right it would be enough to negotiate, in parallel and in secret, concerning their interests. It is yet to be seen whether the FARC is willing to accept that restricted model.

What are the greatest challenges for achieving peace?

There are many challenges. But in order not to assume results that we still don’t know, let’s speak only of this beginning. There are two kinds of challenges. In the first place, the climate of negotiations. In reality, the government, the business élite, almost all the political parties, a large portion of the intellectuals and the major communications media consider that it is a matter fundamentally of criminals who ought to surrender voluntarily to the legal authorities and ask for forgiveness in exchange for a reduction of their sentences. Clearly, this point of departure is unacceptable to the FARC and the ELN. In the second place, there is the agenda and its relation to the demands of the organizations and social movements. It is clear that there is an outright rejection of the neoliberal and extractivist model. I would say that it is impossible, and politically debatable, to take that model to the negotiating table, but it would also be stupid to attempt to ignore it completely. What is certain, and this has to do with the long-term challenge, is that a real solution to the armed conflict in Colombia requires facing profoundly the agrarian or rural question. That means fundamentally that it is not just a matter of distributing lands, but rather it involves two basic aspects: on the one hand, the dismantling of corrupt and violent local powers and, on the other hand, a new territorial model, which would collide with the one in place now.

Does the United States support the dialogue? How is military cooperation against the insurgents between the US and Colombians going?

For many people the fact of the United States announcing the end of Plan Colombia represented hope for peace. And that end came about more for budgetary than for political reasons, in announcements made by the United States, which continues supporting the élite of our country. For the Colombian state, the war represents an enormous expense that it can hardly afford alone, which increases its readiness to negotiate. For the insurgency, that could mean either that the possibilities of a military victory are increased or an opportunity to negotiate under favorable conditions. They seems to have accepted the second reading. Despite that, the United States has not given up its pretensions of strategic control of the continent. As is known, they have completed the “Arc of the Pacific,” in which Santos was called on to be a principal political actor. Nor have they given up, despite internal contradictions, the “war” on drugs. Under these conditions a renewal of large-scale strategic military investment in Colombia cannot be dismissed. Meanwhile, however, they believe in a FARC surrender. It can be seen that, unlike 1998, they do not express support of the negotiating process but only of the government, as if to say they are watching the signs and if it is necessary to resume activities they are ready to help.

Will peace strengthen the Colombian Left?

It is hard to apply the term “Left” to one group or another. At least in Colombia. During the rightist, totalitarian and personalist Uribe administration, even the traditional Liberal Party was in the opposition. A political front like the Polo Democrático Alternativo (PDA) took shape and became strong, which included groups with a revolutionary line, even though in general terms it was barely social democrat or nationalist. Other groups, like the Corruptos!, came into being that, because of their discourse against professional politicians, seemed to be an answer. For example the mislabeled Partido Verde, which some outside the country describe wrongly as leftist. With Santos and his promises of “national unity” the scenario changes substantially. Together with the Partido Liberal, many groups explicitly abandoned the opposition. The PDA is divided. The latest split is related as well to the appearance of the Marcha Patriótica as a social and political movement defined mainly by support for the negotiation process. The leadership of the PDA considers belonging to this movement to be incompatible with activism in the Polo. The truth is that the Polo ended up concealing its political existence as it attempted to avoid any accusation of being related to the FARC, which was the Right’s principal argument against its adversaries. Its future, however, is quite uncertain, not only because of the dismantling it underwent but also because the Right is never satisfied and will continue demanding proof of innocence, to the point that it tends to keep quiet on the most important subject at this juncture, that is, the negotiations. Unless it joins ranks with the government to attack and pressure the FARC. As for the Marcha, what is certain is that, despite demonstrations about several questions, it continues to be centered on the question of negotiations. The characterization of what the future channel of expression for FARC will be has more of McCarthyism than of real political appraisal.

I have to say, finally, that it is very difficult to make a calculation of the future party scenario or even of the negotiations being conducted. Clearly I understand the meaning of the question, that is, whether there is hope for a possible accord with the insurgency, a democratizing process of such a nature that it would allow the strengthening of a Left that could bring about great changes by electoral means, as in the rest of Latin America. But without doubt it is too early to know.

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