How peace process is going in Colombia

Interviews | Shahana Bilalova | 1-05-2017, 14:35

How peace process is going in ColombiaLast year the Colombian authorities and FARC signed a peace accord, which put a long-desired end to one of the longest civil wars in modern history. However, post-conflict process is as difficult as pre-peace period since the government, former militants and entire population have to overcome the emerging challenges. Our interviewee is Richard Emblin, the Editorial Director of The City Paper, the English language publication printed in Colombia.


Interviewer: Shahana Bilalova


Bilalova: What are the main social as well as economic changes that happened in Colombia since the peace agreement was signed in 2016? Does the current situation demonstrate if the expectations before the peace agreement are met? 

Emblin: The Colombians were expecting a peace process 4 years ago and they knew it was going to imply some amount of financial cost. The FARC, when they were at the top of their strength, counted around 12,000 combatants within their ranks. During the first two presidency terms of Álvaro Uribe, he took a big military offensive against the FARC. The Uribe government really dismantled a large chunk of FARC’s military apparatus. By the time FARC sat down in Cuba to talk peace with the Colombian government, more than 4 years ago, their numbers had increased significantly. And the fighting force was larger than what people were expecting. However, according to the government, the official number of the FARC combatants is 3,600. The issue is how you incorporate these combatants back into civil life. It was also needed to offer costly security guarantees for these combatants once they lay down their weapons to form part the Colombian society. The economic realities at the time were also different from what they are today. The price of oil in the global market was somewhere between $80-100 per barrel (currently, oil is the second biggest income revenue for Colombia after coal). We also have coffee so we are not talking about illicit revenue from the cocaine industry which is also another important aspect of this process. Colombia used to have very strong currency, the national  economy was growing by an average of 4.7% annually. Oil revenues were robust, so Colombia   felt confident to finance the post-conflict restoration project that was meant to endow former combatants with a salary and monthly payment slightly higher than the minimum wage hovering around million pesos, which would right now equal to 300$ per person. 

Over the 4 years, since the peace process had been initiated in Cuba, the reality changed. Oil prices slumped, Colombia’s export revenues, including those obtained from coffee sales, have been shrinking, and putting a heavy burden on the government. As the government experienced major budget cutbacks, they decided to slash all the ministerial budgets, and of course, this means the tax reform had to be presented to the Congress to raise a tax base across the border of Colombia. However, the peace accord between theColombian government and FARC was finally ratified by the Congress in November despite having been rejected by a tiny majority of Colombians at a referendum (50.2% “against” versus 49.8% “for”). There have been no escalations of violence and civilian causalities since then. 

However, multiple problems that still haunt the pacification process, persist. The government and FARC, with the help of the UN, divided the country into temporary 26 zones, including a so-called verification zone, responsible for handing over the weaponry belonging to 6,300 former combatants in a 90 days’ period. This far, the government has been unable to fulfil this target. 

The decline in the government’s incomes seriously hurt its opportunities to finance the ambitious programme as the displaced persons still need their sanitation needs to be provided. However, economy continues to grow, albeit at modest rates (2-2.5% per year) so the major problem is the lack of social consensus on the necessity of sacrificing their prosperity for the sake of peace process. The increase in tax rates has this far been an unpopular measure as it hit a lot of small and medium entrepreneurs. These people who have to cut their expenses and earn their bread in hard work quite legitimately feel disgruntled about the generous payments to be made to FARC as the latter is known to have made huge profits from drug trafficking or at least controlling the territories where cocaine was produced. The question why the group is not going to pay its fair share looms large in the Colombian society. 


What are the activities as well as policies followed on behalf of the government to “rehabilitate” rebels and integrate them into the Colombian society? 

The government has already introduced several mechanisms, for example tax breaks for the companies which would hire former combatants. And a lot of big Colombian companies in the manufacturing, dairy production, service sector expressed their willingness to train these people. There also incentives for combatants to get enrolled in education institutions to help them catch up with their studies. They will basically have free access to education. Most of the combatants have not graduated from high school, so this is a good way for them to get into the system. But the truth is, no matter how committed the government is to offer them incentives to incorporate themselves into civilian life, a lot of companies are weary of taking people whose track record is limited to carrying weapons and activities such as kidnapping, often since their childhood years. Many companies express their concerns with hiring people whose activities during the last 5-10 years are unknown. 

We have to remember that although since the peace negotiations FARC has radically changed its rhetoric and showed itself willing to talk and negotiate solutions to the country’s problems such as the issue of land, the rights of victims of the conflict, impunity, giving Colombians mea culpa, in the perception of most Colombians they remain a terrorist group, an entity that had committed a plenty of terrible acts for over 50 years across Colombia. No matter how much the government tries to sell the idea that these people need to be incorporated into civilian life, the sad news is that a lot of them will find themselves filling the ranks of unemployed people. This is dangerous because if these young people don’t get decent employment opportunities, access to banking and cheap credits, they will likely pick up their weapons again, maybe this time not in the name of FARC but just some common criminal entity. This is the real challenge of the post-conflict right now. 


It was stated that after the peace agreement was signed, there was a huge risk for the civil society activist and ethnic leaders since the death toll of them increased tremendously due to the illegal armed groups. What are activities done by the Colombian government as well as NGOs to secure these people’s safety? 

This is, unfortunately, one of the side effects. You can make peace with your largest guerrilla group but it is hard to prevent some of the former combatants refusing to lay down their weapons. The sad reality is that the cocaine industry that has always been the major source of income for the paramilitary groups in Colombia, has not gone anywhere and still constitutes a very significant source of income for large swaths of the population. Almost all of the cocaine produced in Colombia is exported, rather than consumed domestically and brings enormous profits. Hence, the potential source of finance for illegal armed groups remains ever-present. Those who would like to sabotage the peace process will try to convince the former combatants that making profits from drug trafficking makes more sense than returning to peaceful life. This far, these troublemakers have committed various attacks on human rights activists, indigenous groups, aid workers as well as common civilians. It has been a problem and it will continue to be one of the very negative sides of this process. However, the important thing to remember is that violence overall associated with the drug trade will not end the peace agreement. Colombians all are aware that FARC will lay down their weapons within 60-90 days, and the overwhelming majority of FARC, commanders most of the young men and women will follow what their commanders claiming they are going to start new lives. However, there are significant risks of retaliatory violence by common citizens, enraged by the alleged impunity of the rebels, against them once they are disarmed. This is one of the things that the government and FARC have to really work on to offer a maximum level of security to the ex-combatants. Essentially, at the end of the day, the major issue is not really about the people who made up the rank and file of FARC since they are just regular combatants, but offering security guarantees to the senior commanders of FARC who have insisted that they want to lay down their weapons because they want to establish their presence in the political process. 

So, now we are facing the danger of the cells of decedents that may try to recruit and arm themselves anew in the desire to fill the vacuum left behind by FARC. Now there is still the second guerrilla group in Colombia which is called the National Liberation Army (ELN), a relatively small unit with about 2,000 combatants. However, they tend to be more fierce since they have traditional targeting, have a big presence in the cities and often attack the oil industry infrastructure that has become their source of revenue. They are currently in the peace process with the government and are supposed sign an agreement shortly; so once the two established guerilla groups are neutralized, I think that there will be efforts between FARC, ex-ELN, National Army and Police to crush and help the state to eliminate the criminal entities that are not political and only interested in drug trading. Overall, the Colombian society is quite peaceful at that moment, and it is real now to travel all over Colombia without any fear. The normalisation in the countryside is very importantas it represents a huge part of the Colombian economy, dependent on the food supply from local farmers. Now the government really has to live up to its commitment to give the ex-combatants a real chance to earn a decent wage, get reintegrated into the society, reconcile with their families, get to university and schools, etc. 


If we analyze the overall situation and the recent events, in your opinion, to what extent do you think the peace agreement is successful? 

I think the peace process has been successful. It was the first time when the government and FARC demonstrated firm willingness to end the conflict in which 620,000 people have died over 52 years. FARC was a political grouping from the very beginning. They had political aspirations, even though their ideological dynamic and the ways of financing their combat changed over the decades. They had a lot of resources and constituted the de-facto armed forces in the places with little or no state presence. For many poor, remote regions where people traditionally live on the verge of subsistence, FARC fulfilled the functions of both bureaucratic state and armed forces. The state couldn’t bring education and health to these people, so FARC was their natural safety net. It is important that just a few years earlier FARC considered to shift to more radically militaristic ways and aimed at taking power by force, but eventually they came to realize its impossibility. The Colombian authorities, aided to a considerable extent by the American government interested in destroying the hotbeds of drug trafficking, have benefited a lot from significant technological advancement in the armythat waged a war on drugs and later on increased pressure onto FARC. Essentially FARC realized they could not win the war against the military endowed with the latest technologies, and their best chance was to return into civil politics and re-brand themselves as a political entity. That is when the change began. When Timochenko (Timoleón Jiménez), the core commander of FARC assumed control of the group, there had been an internalagreement between the FARC members to abandon the goal of overtaking power militarily. Since then, it has become possible for FARC to reach agreements with the Colombian government on many issues such as de-escalation of violence, infrastructural development, bringing health services to poor. However, the conflict was exacerbated by the fact that so many people had been forcibly expelled from their land by the paramilitaries, for decades. The society had to accept victims and all that happened in the conflict, including the atrocities committed by the both sides. So for the very beginning, the two sides had a common agenda. The major problem in Colombia was not even how to stop the violence, but how to get over all the corruption, ensuring that money supposed to fund the regions would not evaporate, and an efficient mechanism of distributing the lands and offering an access to them would be implemented. One of the key issues on the agenda was the distribution of wealth in a non-traditional way considering not mainly Bogotá, but also the rest of the country which has comparatively very poor funding. Even before the negotiations in Havana, the both parties were enthusiastic in pushing the peace process and they knew it would work out. The scale of violence had reached really terrible levels and FARC was gradually losing credibility as a force since during the last 20 years all they did was kidnapping and attacking people they supposed to be defending. Now people believe that FARC and the government are much closer ideologically than they were 10 years ago. There is now a consensus about the detrimental effects of corruption, unequal distribution of land and wealth, lack of access to microfinancing and banking services experienced by the majority of the poor in Colombia. So, the peace process is more than just a peace process since it is a road map to envisioning an equal society. It is a road map to understanding that the problem in Colombia isn’t a historical fight between the left and right but the fight against corruption, inequality and rampant societal cleavages. There is an understanding now that all Colombians have a right to education, health, road, electricity that it is the responsibility of the government. On that side, almost everyone agreed that the peace was necessary. Now the challenge is to ensure steady financing of the reconstruction and development policies. I think that the weapons handover by FARC is a technical issue in the end of the day, and the priority now is to end the conflict with ELN quickly and start to target those who operate in the criminal gangs which benefited from the vacuum FARC left behind by taking over the cocaine regions and drug trafficking roots.

Unfortunately, the image of Colombia has been identified by the conflict so far. The Colombians have a profound sense of moving things quickly. It is incredible to see how Colombians are resilient people. It is also true in the countrysides. We see the acceptance of peace process in the regions where the people suffered the most. The most important thing is that the first time Colombians realized that Colombia is not about the big cities only but it is also about the countryside and bringing development to rural areas as well. Considering the future of Colombia, ecotourism and food exporting have a great perspective here. I think government and FARC are aware that Colombia has very rich agricultural potential which will be the only major way of substituting cocaine industry. This is where FARC with their knowledge will apply to the post-conflict. As a result, cocaine issue will move out from Colombia. 


About the author:

Shahana Bilalova

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