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Colombia peace talks in peril ahead of vote

Sunday's runoff presidential vote could spark a return to outright conflict that has claimed 215,000 lives.

Last updated: 13 Jun 2014 12:01
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Peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC rebels are ongoing in Cuba [AFP]

Colombia's presidential runoff on Sunday looks too close to call in a contest framed as a referendum on peace negotiations between the government and leftist FARC rebels.

Incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos has staked his re-election campaign, and presidency, on talks taking place in Cuba. Oscar Zuluaga, the protege of former hardline president Alvaro Uribe, opposes the current round of negotiations.

As the final contenders seek support from rival candidates defeated in the first round of voting last month, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia fighters in Colombia's jungle and their negotiating team in Cuba are making their own political calculations.

Members of Latin America's largest insurgent movement, a group with an estimated 8,000 fighters that has been waging a bloody 50-year conflict with the state, were not available for interviews.

But Ariel Avila, a researcher at the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, an organisation that maintains regular contact with guerrillas, believes that "the peace process will be over if Zuluaga arrives in power".

"The FARC are in a complicated situation," Avila told Al Jazeera last month. "They agreed to negotiate during conflict instead of having a ceasefire - that was the government's decision, not their decision."

The ostensibly Marxist rebels declared a unilateral ceasefire from June 9-30 to cover the election period, possibly as a sign of good will for Santos.

More than 215,000 Colombians have died in the conflict, which pits the FARC and smaller leftist guerrilla groups against the military and paramilitary organisations financed by large landowners and other elites. The FARC traces its history back to a period between 1948 and 1957 known as "La Violencia", a conflict between Colombia's two main political parties - Liberals and Conservatives - sparked by the murder of a populist politician. More than 300,000 people died in the unrest, and rural defence brigades comprised mostly of small farmers and rural workers coalesced to form the FARC in 1964. 

Initially motivated by ideology and a desire to improve life for the rural poor, the Marxist-Leninist group has been accused by Human Rights Watch of recruiting child soldiers, carrying out killings and forcibly displacing people. The Colombian government estimated in 2012, that the FARC was earning up to $3.5bn annually from drug trafficking, although other researchers believe the figure is far lower. There is, however, universal acceptance that members of the FARC are heavily involved in the drug trade, earning several hundred million dollars annually.    

Blurred lines

"It's difficult to make a clean cut between the drug traffickers and ideologues," said Maria Victoria Llorente, the director of Foundation of Ideas for Peace.

In Depth

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Officially demobilised under a 2002 plan by former President Uribe, groups of "neo-paramilitaries" made up of former members of the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) continue to operate in the countryside, harassing activists and running drugs, analysts said.

The agreement led to a significant drop in violence in many regions, and allowed the government to focus on fighting the FARC, weakening the group and tipping the balance of power in the conflict. But Uribe's supporters allegedly remained close with paramilitary bosses and the terms of the deal were not made public.

"There isn't a single word or a paper or agreement where it's known exactly what was negotiated with paramilitaries," Llorente said. "There are a lot of black holes in the process that Colombians don't know about. Many middle-ranking figures in these groups became leaders of the next generation of criminal gangs. Was that by design? We Colombians don't know."

If a new deal is inked with the FARC, Santos has promised to put its contents to a national referendum, in contrast to Uribe's deal for the far-right.

As part of current negotiations, the FARC agreed on May 16 to help the Colombian government confront drug trafficking, which both sides agreed in a joint declaration in Havana has "financed the conflict".

The trafficking of illegal narcotics, mostly cocaine, along with arms dealing and people smuggling, is estimated to account for more than five percent of Colombia's GDP or as much as $17bn in 2012. 

'Peace of the vanquished'

It's hoped that a peace deal will weaken criminal cartels. Some analysts, however, aren't sure whether the FARC leadership negotiating in Cuba will be able to stop lower-ranking members or associates from continuing the lucrative trafficking business. 

With decades of experience in the drug trade, Llorente believes many middle-ranking FARC figures "are uneasy with the peace process" as they are "very much involved with trafficking" and want to see their economic interests protected. 

With less than 40 percent of the electorate voting in the first round of balloting, even when a crucial issue like peace is at stake, some have suggested that elections in Colombia are contests between different sectors of the elite, rather than genuine representations of popular will. 

Regional elites benefit from the conflict. They have pushed peasants off their land and killed their political opponents.

- Ariel Avila, Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation

While there is deep personal animosity between Santos and Zuluaga, stemming from their disagreement over peace negotiations, the two men "both represent the Colombian elite in a highly unequal society", said Fernando Giraldo, a political strategist.

"Even though Colombia is producing more and more wealth, less than one percent of the population keeps 40 percent of the national income," he told Al Jazeera.

Many rural and regional elites, particularly the old landowning class, is backing Zuluaga, while newer urban forces believe that a Santos win and a peace deal would benefit their interests, Avila said. "Regional elites benefit from the conflict. They have pushed peasants off their land and killed their political opponents," he said. More than 5.7 million Colombians have been internally displaced since 1964.

Links between some local landowners and paramilitary mafias could come to light if Colombia were to implement a truth commission as part of a deal - and this worries landowners and their political allies, he said. "They want a peace like Peru [where there was no truth commission or probing], a peace of the victors and the vanquished," Avila said.

National elites, in contrast, believe a peace deal could expedite Colombia's resource boom, opening regions where the FARC currently operates to new energy extraction and mining. The FARC and Colombia's government agreed to set up a truth commission earlier this month.

What would peace mean?

If a peace deal were signed after the election, it remains unclear if a "peace dividend" would lead to stronger economic growth, as is the accepted wisdom for post-conflict countries. Santos predicts a peace deal could boost annual economic growth above seven percent.

Other analysts disagree, as most of Colombia's territory is already controlled by the government and crime, rather than political insurgency, is the largest impediment to improved prospects.

"The violence we see associated with that conflict is only 10-20 percent of overall violence we have in Colombia," Llorente said. She believes a potential deal with the FARC would have a smaller impact on overall security than the 2002 agreement with the paramilitaries.

Residents of the major cities, including Bogota, Medellin, Cali and Cartagena, probably wouldn't see any changes in their daily lives if a deal is reached, although some people living in Colombia's border areas and other guerrilla strongholds could see their lot improved.

If Zuluaga wins, reigniting full-scale conflict, it's unlikely that residents of the major cities would face renewed bomb attacks, as the FARC is weaker than in past decades. A new government offensive would, however, mean that many rural residents would "suffer huge crimes", Avila said. "The oil industry will be attacked," he said. "But it won't be a return to a full civil war in the cities like before."

Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter: @chrisarsenaul

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Al Jazeera
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