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The break down of the Peace Process in Colombia

March 2002

Many in the Colombian press and international press have lamented the break down in the peace process in Colombia and the decision of President Pastrana to send in troops to the former dimilitarized zone.  Others have not been able to hide the look of glee on their faces and all the heads of state in the world almost to the last have announced their unqualified support for Pastrana.

There is a lot to regret for certain sections of Colombian society.  The night time bombing raids on the departments of Meta and Caquetá will no doubt leave a trail of civilian deaths.  Further as Carlos Castaño lamented in a public communiqué the DMZ was the only area of Colombia where the death squads did not and could not operate.  It has been proven beyond all doubt that the death squads operate with the collaboration and complicity of the Colombian army and police.  There have been no police or army in that part of Colombia for over three years and hence there has been no death squad activity either.  Carlos Castaño announced that his lackeys would enter the DMZ on the heels of the army and take action against subversive elements.  The inhabitants of the area have a lot to fear and also regret.  For three years they have lived in relative peace and unlike many Colombians have had little to fear from the death squads.

However, in political terms the loss is not as great.  If we look at what the peace process was in Colombia we can understand what has been lost.  The first thing to understand is that this process was always a process that took place behind closed doors without the participation of the Colombian people.  Both the Colombian government and the FARC agreed on this.  As a sop to public opinion and in an attempt to draw away attention from the ELN proposal for a National Convention the FARC offered Colombian society the possibility to go to San Vicente to put forward proposals which they would take into account.  However, this is not the same as participating in the process and having a say.  On the Colombian governmentís side the explanation is quite simple, the State has never offered its people the opportunity to participate in civil life and in the midst of negotiations they were not about to give them the notion that they had any right to do anything other than line up behind the State.  The FARC on the other hand have a notion that they are the vanguard whether the people like it or not and that they represent the people whether the people know it or not and so they donít have to take into account the views of others on the left in the trade union movement or other social movements.  In 1983 the FARC made an addition to its name EP, Ejército del Pueblo (army of the people).  The name change was not symbolic but represented their position that they and they alone could speak on behalf of the people.  If we take into account that recent Colombian history is littered with guerrilla groups that claimed to represent the people and then did deals with the State behind the backs of the people we may lament a little less the passing of the process.  Some of the groups that did deals where rewarded with positions in government or in embassies etc.  No substantial or even ephemeral gains were made for the Colombian people in those processes.

It was the intention of the Colombian State that this process would be the same.  This was made very clear recently when all discussion centered around a cease fire and other issues where pushed to the side.  It is worth pointing out that what the Colombian government was offering is the norm in any bourgeois democracy, so why the need to negotiate it?  If Colombia is the oldest democracy in Latin America then why does the State need to negotiate reforms and demand a cease fire before they even begin to talk about them.  The answer is that they were never interested in changing Colombian society but in forcing yet another group to surrender and give up on a guerrilla strategy which is increasingly showing itself to be incapable of advancing the class interests it claims to represent (whether it actually represents those interests is a matter of debate).

The question on the lips of a rather servile press in Colombia was how to aportion blame.  All came down firmly on the side of the State and blamed the FARC.  There is no doubt that the FARC have shown themselves to be incompetent when it comes to dealing with public opinion or showing themselves to be capable of dealing with political matters.  For years they have argued about the procedure of the talks and only in recent times have they seriously begun to advance timid social reforms as demands on the State such as unemployment benefit and other social security measures.  They have also had a number of public relations disasters which have swung the tide against them.  One was the debacle of the child Felipe Andrés whose father was captured by the FARC two years ago in a raid on a police station.  Felipe Andrés had a couple of months to live and publicly asked the FARC to allow him to see his father.  The FARC refused demanding that the State hand over a prisoner in exchange.  In normal circumstances a reasonable demand, but it was a public relations disaster and the military advantage to holding on to his father was minute to the political disadvantage it entailed.  The media had a field day and went to town on the FARC.  It mattered little that the childís father abandoned him because he had cancer in the first place.  That was lost in the clamour for a little compassion.  A smart political movement  would have handed over the police officer with a list in hand of political and none political prisioners in similar situations.  The child died and the media and the far right had a field day.  Only a movement which thinks that it doesnít have to deal with or engage with society could make such a stupid crass mistake.  It must be remembered though that the FARC where actually right in relation to the fatherís relationship with the child and that there are many prisoners in similar situations.

The increasing use of car bombs and gas cylinders launched on small towns has further served to alienate the FARC.  Again they have sacrificed political gain for military advantage.  In this sense one can lay a part of the blame on the shoulders of the FARC.  However, throughout the peace talks the death squads have expanded rapidly with the complete collaboration of the State taking over such important towns as Barrancabermeja the major oilport.  If you believed in the process there is ample proof to back up either claim to the breakdown.  However, the real question is was the process ever going to offer anything.  In Latin America there hasnít been one single peace process that has achieved anything for its people.  The URNG and the FMLN surrendered all or most of their political demands and the various Colombian groups settled for fat bums on big seats.  There is nothing to indicate that this process ever offered anything different.  If the Colombian left hopes to build a movement for change then it will have to look outside the guerrilla groups, the FARC in particular.

It will also have to reject processes like the current one which give space to the western powers, calling them Friendly Countries.  The left cannot have it both ways.  It cannot denounce the oil companies and then seek to do a deal which included the foreign powers pushing the interests of these same companies.  These same countries have backed up the State at every twist and turn and their involvement is prescisely to curtail any advances and give a veneer of international legitimacy to a muderous regime, a role the FARC and the ELN invited them to play.



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