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Colombia: Havana, the peace of the victors or the vanquished? (Part I)
Gearoid O Loingsigh
21 March 2014
The peace process with the FARC in Havana, Cuba has been going on now for a year and a half. It is time to take a critical look at the process and the support it has received. Where is the process going? What are the real perspectives? Are they really negotiating the future of a new Colombia? Or, on the contrary, are they negotiating the same Colombia with some retouching?
This process has lacked any critical analysis. The NGOs, thinking of their post conflict projects are salivating and dreaming of the money and the chance to raise their profile. The politicians have little or nothing to add and the so called left intellectuals lie prostrated without the slightest chance or desire to make any critique. Their intellectual capacity (which shouldn’t be exaggerated) is suspended, as they will also be winners in the process, with projects, analysis for the new bodies that will require their “talent”. This can be seen with Alejo Vargas, an intellectual, who claims to be on the left. In the magazine Semana, Vargas wrote an article titled Talks in Havana: pointing to a better society. Although he cites some communiqués he did so without the slightest critique. His article was more a rallying call to a people who in their daily lives are largely apathetic regarding the talks. According to him, there is something fundamental:
“[and] that is the contribution of the citizens, we must give clear political support to these Talks and the Agreements reached in them and all of us must in a pedagogical fashion seek out more compatriots who support peace – because many Colombians are still confused, doubtful or possibly ill informed. So that the Agreements and the efforts made by all become irreversible.”(1)He is not the only acritical intellectual and we will deal with others in the second part. In his case, his surrender is so abject that he demands clear support for a process which is secret and he demands that we seek out, with a certain pedagogy, more friends of a process of which we don’t have sufficient data to be pedagogical about. It is not a mistake on his part. As a distinguished university lecturer he knows well that one requires information in order to be pedagogical. It is laughable that he says that some Colombians are ill-informed as that is the point, in order that there not be any discussion on the aims or reach of the process.
Nor are there any reflections on the past, nor a real look at processes in other countries, such as El Salvador and Guatemala. This article is divided in two, the first part will take a brief look at other processes and the second will look at the current process.
One has to look at other processes as they are waved about as successful cases of negotiation and of the road to take. Members of Sinn Féin, the URNG from Guatemala and the FMLN from El Salvador have arrived and continue to arrive in Colombia with the same message, peace is achievable. The atmosphere is a bit like the mass meetings of TV Evangelists in the US “you too can also be successful if you accept the Lord in your heart” and just like the evangelical preachers, they brook no criticism. He who is against us has no heart or is an agent of Satan. This may be the case, and this agent of Satan would like to reflect and make some criticisms.
Although Ireland is not a Latin country it is of great relevance to this process, as it is the model that is being applied. The negotiations in Ireland were behind closed doors, we knew nothing of their content. Any time one tried to make a criticism one had to compete with the gossip as now happens in Colombia. If one puts forward a criticism of the agrarian agreement, a voice calls out, “no my friend, I was talking to someone very close to the negotiators and he says...” Of course in the case of Ireland we now know that the gossip wasn’t true, but it helped suffocate debate and prepare people to accept an historic defeat. I have experienced gossip in both countries. In Colombia an old left intellectual told me literally to shut up as I did not know what I was talking about as, unlike him, I didn’t have contact with the FARC. Neither do the majority of the population; a population that Alejo Vargas demands give their support to the process in the midst of their ignorance. The model adopted from Ireland has one advantage for the State: when they reach a final agreement, the people will have two options, accept it or reject it in its totality. The second option is to ask the FARC to continue in the mountains, or at least it will be presented as such and nobody is going to do that. An open process where people discuss the content would be very dangerous for the Colombian oligarchy, which has never accepted the right of the people to express an opinion, not even in the most restrictive terms of any bourgeois state.
The participation of the Irish people took place after the agreement, in a referendum that was largely symbolic. There was some opportunity to take part in events and one could always send documents to Sinn Féin, though they were under no obligation to even read them. Something similar has happened in Colombia. There was an agrarian forum organised by the National University and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). It is worth pointing out that the UNDP is not opposed to latifundios, nor to the agro-exporting model, it is not even opposed to mining. In fact, it supports all of them, notwithstanding some reservations on the concentration of land. This will be dealt with in greater detail in the second part.
We know what happened in Ireland, the IRA surrendered, handing over its ideals very early on in the secret process and spent more time on discussing how to hand over their weapons with little or no publicity. It came up with the novel idea of destroying them under the auspices of an international commission presided over by a Canadian soldier, General de Chastelein. The British did not leave Ireland and Sinn Féin accepted a subordinate role in the administration of the British colony.
Throughout the process in Ireland Sinn Féin and IRA issued declarations stating what they would not do. It seems risible today when we look at the reality. They said that they would not accept a return to Stormont. Now they have a parliament with fewer powers than a mayor’s office in Colombia and the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness is from Sinn Féin and is a former IRA commander. They are the ones who administer the colony. They said that they would not hand over a single bullet nor an ounce of explosives. They came through on that i.e. they didn’t hand over anything they destroyed it under the supervision of an international commission headed by a Canadian military officer. It was an exercise in public relations. Throughout the process there was a constant flow of dishonest declarations that only served to distract and fool their base. In Colombia we are going through something similar.
El Salvador, is for many people, even more relevant due to it being a Latin country, the existence of a guerrilla army (they IRA was a different kind of armed organisation), which disputed power with the oligarchy. The 1992 agreements which were in reality a series of agreements signed between 1989 and the end of 1991 were given the backing of the UN, the imperialist countries, the intellectuals and the NGOs. In that they have a lot in common with Colombia. More than two decades have lapsed since the signing of the agreements. If what was said in the negotiations were true, one would expect to find that El Salvador was nowadays, a real democracy and great strides had been made on behalf of the poor. The end of the conflict should, according to many intellectuals in Colombia, allow the country to make headway. The reality is different.
Javier Giraldo in his book Búsqueda de Verdad y Justicia: Seis experiencias en posconflicto (The Search for Truth and Justice: Six experiences of post-conflict) analyses various cases of peace processes, amongst them, that of El Salvador. He points out something, which will almost certainly be repeated in Colombia.
There were chapters of the Agreements that didn’t go beyond general descriptions or two or three very precarious legal reforms. This happened to the chapters related to the judicial system (Cap. III), the electoral system (Cap. IV), the economic and social issues (Cap. V) and the political participation of the FMLN (Cap VI).
A simple comparison between the chapters that deserved a detailed design and those that didn’t go beyond generalities, allows one to evaluate this process as one that was centred on bringing the war to an end, on doing away with the most inhuman abuses and guaranteeing a minimum of respect for the political opposition, but did not touch the most profound causes of the violence and the conflict which are to be found in the economic and social structures.(2)That is to say that they did not negotiate a new society for the country, but rather the brought an end to the anti-capitalist violence and the State, the victor in the armed conflict was happy to bring an end to that violence.
The social and economic issues which were laid out in very vague terms in the Agreements, were, when it came to implementing them, reduced to the handover of bad stony lands to former combatants of the FMLN with hoes and some chairs thrown in.(3)An agrarian reform was never really considered and handing over land to former combatants is a personal incentive, it is not a reform. Of course, in Colombia high ranking leaders have received such incentives in other peace processes. The M-19 and EPL guerrillas were given jobs in embassies etc. This cannot be seen as anything other than a personal bribe, although in Colombia the bribes were on a greater scale in terms of personal wellbeing and on a lower scale in terms of the reduced number of beneficiaries.
But nowadays, how is El Salvador doing? What is peace like? How is the construction of a new country going? Javier Giraldo laments the levels of violence which in 2001, nine years after the peace accords, ranged, depending on the source, between 120 and 150 (per 100,000) deaths per year, a figure almost on par with the years of the war. The official figures for that year were lower, placing the rate at 37.22. Even if we accept the official figures, the situation is not inspiring. It is worth mentioning that figures on criminality in many countries are indicative and are not precise. Any researcher in Colombia finds that Police statistics do not match those of Forensic Medicine or other sources. So it is in El Salvador. Even so, the figures that appear in the OAS report show that the murder rate increased from 37.22 in 2001 to 69.2 in 2011, whilst in Colombia, a country at war, the rate dropped from 65.1 to 37.7 (2010).(4)
This not only shows that Peace has not brought about peace for the people, but rather shows the hypocrisy and cynicism that accompanies all peace processes. There may be intellectuals and NGOs that are worried about the bloodbath, however, this is not the principle motivation behind these processes. If it were the case, El Salvador, would once more, be the centre of the international efforts of NGOs and foreign governments. But this is not the case because in El Salvador the violence has no political purpose and does not represent a threat to the system as such. So, to put it in vulgar terms, lets not talk crap about violence! The fans of the process in Havana are not worried about violence, they are worried about stability for investors. This is one of the big lessons of El Salvador. The left-wing fans want to ignore this reality.
Neither is it the case the Peace has achieved a welfare for the people. One of the arguments regarding the conflict in Colombia is that without the conflict the country could make progress and the social problems would be solved. This ignores outright that the country is not one of the most unequal countries on the planet by mistake, but rather as the result of the policies adopted by the elite for a long time. These policies include, murder, massacres and forced displacement as mechanisms of accumulation and are not limited to actions of a few thugs. How many hectares of land were appropriated by families that nowadays have representatives in the Congress? However, they don’t just pay scant regard to the history of the country but also to the experiences of other countries such as El Salvador.
The economic indicators of country are not promising for the poor. The big argument of the NGOs and perhaps the argument that is most convincing (after the supposed reduction in violent deaths) is that they promise a better future. The analyst James Petras has pointed out that the unemployment rate in El Salvador is over 50% and more than 60% of jobs are informal, with no pensions or social security etc. Moreover, according to Petras more than 2.5 million people have been forced to emigrate.(5) This figure is alarming if we bear in mind that the population of El Salvador is around 6.3 million. It is hardly surprising that some 60,000 youths are involved in gangs. Moreover, the country has not experienced any development or economic progress, even though today it is now a safe place for foreign investment.
The poor in El Salvador live by any means and remittances. In 1992 when the final “peace” agreement was signed the country received 649 million USD in remittances. Ten years later it almost tripled, reaching the figure of 1,954 million USD to settle at 3,927 million USD in 2012. In other words a country which got rid of its young and not so young forcing them to go to the US, now lives off them. When they talk about the success of the peace process they don’t mention this situation. If we compare it to Colombia we can see that in the same time period the remittances increased from 641 million USD to 4,123 million USD.(6) There are two things that we should point out, the first is that Colombia has a population that is seven times that of El Salvador and secondly in this period Colombia is a country in the midst of a war and not at “peace” like El Salvador. In fact, in this period the country lived through the massive expansion of the FARC and the paramilitary takeover of large cities (or parts of them) and an escalation of the war and still despite this, it is in better shape than El Salvador after 20 years of “peace” and in the last few years an FMLN government. A leader of the FMLN and ex General Secretary of the Communist Party two years before his death, gave us the following gem about their reasons for signing the peace agreement “I emphasise we gave up our guns and entered the system in order to change it, not for us to be changed by it.”(7) The reality, however, is different, they were the ones who changed, some of them very quickly and a quick glance at the FMLN in government leaves no room for doubt. Nothing changed, except them.
The conflict in Guatemala was of a longer duration than that of El Salvador dating from 1960, though it has its roots in the coup d’etat backed by the CIA, United Fruits and the Dulles family against the government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 (the spark was the use of Guatemala as a base from which to attack Cuba). In just one year Arbenz confiscated more than 603,000 hectares of land to share out amongst the poor in lots ranging from 3.5 to 17.5 hectares.(8) After the coup there was a counter agrarian reform. By 1970 12, 800 farms covered 66% of the land and 366,100 farms covered just 12% of the land.(9) The land question was not a minor issue in Guatemala. To resolve the deep problems of the conflict is to resolve the land question, just as it is in Colombia. However, this did not happen. The URNG signed off for crumbs. This conflict due to its long duration has many elements in common with the Colombian conflict and the current conjuncture. As the Mexican sociologist Sergio Tischer points out:
The Peace Accords are put forward as a great grassroots achievement. But this is not so. The URNG was militarily defeated and the military-oligarchical power was at that time very stable. The agreement was based on a very unfavourable balance of forces. From my point of view the left made a great mistake: they thought that the Accords were a kind of mini-revolution: that the Land Fund was some type of agrarian reform, that access to public jobs was a great achievement. But what it gave rise to was the collapse of the people’s organisations. The elite found itself obliged to negotiate with armed organisations but this did not translate into a favourable correlation of forces. The mass organisations were severely hit and in the period after the peace they did not rebuild themselves, on the contrary they entered into a logic of atomisation and NGOisation in which the question of the radical transformation was put aside and the main aim became how to insert themselves in the institutions which form part of the new hegemony.(10)A constant factor in the various peace agreements in Colombia is precisely what Tischer describes in the Guatemalan case: sharing out of posts in embassies, as was done with M-19 and the EPL, agricultural projects with the indigenist guerrillas of Quintín Lame or setting up an NGO as was done with the CRS and one or other seats in the Congress etc. There are no reasons to believe that this process will be any different. The time when they could give jobs in the embassies is gone, but they could still do so with other public bodies and the FARC have already asked for money for radio stations and have even put forward the idea of seats in Congress, something which they initially claimed they did not want. Solving the agrarian question a motor and justification for the rising up against the State was not tried at all in Guatemala.
As far as the regime of land ownership there have been no structural modifications of it after the armed conflict and the Peace Accords (December 1996). Guatemala continues to be a country of a small number of large landowners where 3% of them usufruct more than 60% of the properties. If we place these data on a virtual map, we find that 3% of Guatemalans own all of the arable land in 13 of the 22 departments of the country.(11)In the current peace process in Colombia these countries are referred to as examples to follow despite the results of these processes and the surrender of the left to neoliberalism and their own elites. Various leaders and representatives of these processes have come to Colombia to encourage the Colombians to follow their example. At no stage are the merits, achievements or failures of these processes discussed. The reality of them is not up for discussion.
Taking into account the importance of the land question in Guatemala, one would naively expect the peace process to bring an end to the agrarian conflict or at least make significant progress in the area, both in terms of legislation and land distribution as well as in terms of the power structure in the countryside. But once more, nothing could be further from the truth. The peace agreement in Guatemala was, as is proposed in Colombia, a series of accords on different points, one of them being the agrarian issue: The Accord on Socio-economic Aspects and the Agrarian Situation. Javier Giraldo has the following to say on this text:
The text is also oversaturated with promises and commitments but the vast majority of them are written in general terms and not in concrete precise terms. It is noteworthy that from the introduction that the economic development is based on “economic sustainable growth as a requirement to answer the social demands”, but the model for economic development is not defined or discussed. The whole document gives the impression that it presumes that it is the current economic model and is limited to programming greater social investment in the areas of education, health, housing and work, increasing coverage mainly in order to get it to the most vulnerable sectors and improve the quality and participation in these areas and combating corruption. The land chapter is perhaps the one that goes into greater detail. The commitments made in this, are so many and so large and at the same time so general that one doubts about their possible implementation.(12)Giraldo is a little generous when he says that “the document presumes that it is the current economic model”, as that is actually the point. No victorious or undefeated bourgeoisie discusses the model of a country. The model and power are never up for discussion. In all of the countries where there have been peace processes, the economic model remains intact, with some “concession” or other which is usually a cosmetic exercise. Not only have countries such as Guatemala or El Salvador done this, but also countries such as South Africa, a country which posses the material means to follow a different path should it choose to. Giraldo also points out that many of the commitments were written in generic language. In this way the State does not have to live up to the agreements. There is a generic message for public consumption and another for those who are really analysing the reality of it. Unfortunately the left is not usually amongst those who are paying attention to the situation, but rather they swallow the peace tale whole without any analysis of the truth. Of course the NGOs analyse the situation and then present it in the most dishonest form they can.
The NGOs, in order to distract from and avoid a real discussion, place the emphasis on the ending of violence. As we have already pointed out in relation to El Salvador, the violence that ends is that which is directed against the State in a vain attempt to build a new model. Something similar has happened in Guatemala where violence is rife.
The violence escalates as a cause, effect and natural state of this system where the minimum consensus achieved in 1996 fades: the consensus for the need for a redistributive State; the consensus on democracy as a form of government; the consensus – or the idea – of an international community committed to social change; the consensus that security is an essential element for accumulation (hence an important sector of the oligarchy committed itself to the democratic process). Today, the insecurity generates profits, the absence of norms, the lack of laws, the scrupulous breaking of each an every code of social coexistence.
The personal and collective spaces for participation are restricted and the ability to react and intervene socially is weakened. Our political period is being reconfigured. We experience and feel it, we also have begun to give it a name: a latent state of war, neo-dictatorship, the new genocide.(13)The above text laments the fading away of the consensus of the peace agreements. One can only lament this if one really believes there was a real consensus between the victorious State and an insurgency defeated in political terms to such a degree that it has never been able to put a counter analysis of the process in which they accepted their defeat. However, the text does demonstrate a concern with the alarming levels of violence. Whilst some aspects of the violence, such as those related to drug trafficking might be considered as examples of anti-state violence, nowadays there is no anti-capitalist or anti-systemic violence. The conflict is over, and as some claim, the violence may not be an official state policy now, this does not mean that the persecution of the workers’ peasants’ and human rights’ organisations has ended. That violence continues, albeit at significantly reduced levels, but that is not due to the agreements, it is simply that capitalism knows what doses of violence to apply. Where there is no need to kill, it does not kill but rather buys off, bribes, threatens, imprisons, or dumbs down as happens in many parts of Europe. Where they still see the need to kill, the murders continue and we are not referring to high profile killing such as that of Monsignor Gerardi, but rather of people from grassroots organisations. Such is the case of the opposition to the Spanish company Unión Fenosa. One should point out that it is one of the most heavily criticised companies in Colombia due to its relations with communities. Between 2009 and 2010 eight activists opposed to the company were murdered in Guatemala.(14) In a peace process the guerrillas are supposed to stop trying to overthrow the State, which they did and the State, the multinationals and far right groups are supposed to stop killing the opposition. But this is not the case and in Colombia we can state without any fear of getting it wrong that after signing the peace agreements, leaders in mining, palm and oil zones etc will continue to be killed.
Whilst the peace process in Colombia emulates other countries it also borrows the same language. We have heard for a long time now the expression Social Justice, even in the recent Agrarian Summit held in Bogotá there was a discussion group on Social Justice. The terminology is imported from the world of the NGOs. It doesn’t mean anything, nobody knows how to define it, one has the sensation that it is like the old saying on pornography, nobody knows how to define it but we recognise it when we see it. Except we have never seen it. Does the Social Justice of the NGOs exist in any country? It is a question I once put to a Colombian academic who did not answer but almost formed the words Scandinavia and Switzerland on her lips. There is not enough space here to go into the social realities of those countries, but one simple question that could be put to the NGOs would be, when Switzerland dumps its toxic waste in Africa are the people who live in the vicinity of those dumps included in this Social Justice? It is just one question and the answer is no, because Social Justice doesn’t exist anywhere. The use given to the term can be seen in the following three quotes.
Together we can make our country, with such talent and possibilities achieve a real peace: a peace which doesn’t just mean the end of the violence but also progress towards greater social justice.
We want a just country, an egalitarian country, a country where social justice is no longer some ethereal concept and is seen in concrete actions, in the lives of our compatriots...
We continue to persevere in our search for social justice, we continue to struggle together to achieve peace. (15)These quotes could have been taken from declarations by the FARC or some NGO or even one of those kowtowing “intellectuals”, but they are not. They belong to none other than Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia. He feels at home using this expression. Moreover, in the first quote he says that he wants to make progress towards a greater degree of social justice, which means that there is already some degree of social justice in Colombia.
So, what does it mean when the left uses this term? Well, on the one hand the FARC and the ELN are saying that for them the struggle for socialism is in the past as the phrase substitutes the word socialism in their declarations. The NGOs and the intellectuals are happy, but this is very serious. Not only do they abandon the struggle for a socialism that they preached about so much, but they are telling the world that they have abandoned any attempt at effecting a profound change in the country and in the structure of power, just as the FMLN and URNG did in their time. That is what Social Justice means, some reforms, a little more in the budget for health, perhaps. We are not talking about changes in the structure of power. That has been ruled out.
For the last year and a half there has been no discussion on the reality of the peace processes and consequently no real discussion on what we can expect from this process in Colombia, despite a plethora of conferences, articles and speeches on the issue. The defeat of the political project of the insurgency is not discussed, rather there is talk, without a shred of evidence, of the improvement it will mean for the country. The defeats and failures in other countries are presented as victories and progress. George Orwell is alive and well, war is peace and lies are truth. Though, perhaps even Orwell would have difficulties in coming up with a doublethink of the magnitude of these peace processes with their abuse of language.
The second part of this article will look at the current process in Colombia and the “agreements” already reached between the parts.
(1) Vargas, A (2013) Conversaciones de
la Habana: avizoran una mejor sociedad, Semana Issue No. 382, 2013.
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