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Peace in Colombia?

BOGOTA, Dec 5 2012 (IPS) - People in the streets and squares of the Colombian capital are breathing easier. The air is fresh with hope, in contrast to the former leaden and fearful atmosphere of eternal violence and interminable conflict.

Ignacio Ramonet

The war in Colombia is one of the longest-running armed conflicts in the world. It began (or intensified) when Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, an immensely popular social leader who advocated social justice, including financial system reform and land reform, was murdered by the oligarchy on Apr. 9, 1948.

Since then the number of casualties has reached the hundreds of thousands. Today, in a continent that is overwhelmingly at peace, this conflict – Latin America’s last guerrilla war – is like a vestige of another era.

Travelling around the country and talking with diplomats, intellectuals, social workers, journalists, academics or local residents in low-income neighbourhoods, the conclusion that can be drawn is that this time, intentions are serious.

Things have apparently been on the move since President Juan Manuel Santos, in office since August 2010, publicly announced in early September that the government and the insurgents would be starting peace talks, first in Oslo and then in Havana, with the governments of Norway and Cuba as guarantors and of Venezuela and Chile as observers.

Colombians have confidence in the peace process; they feel that internal and external circumstances allow them – prudently – to dream. What if peace were, at last, possible? During the last 65 years of war, it is not the first time that the authorities and the rebels have sat down to negotiate.

Why has President Santos, who was an implacable opponent of the guerrillas as defence minister under former president Álvaro Uribe, chosen the path of negotiation? Because this time, he says, “the stars are aligned to end the conflict.” In other words, the national and international situations could not be more propitious.

In the first place, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are no longer what they used to be. They remain the most formidable guerrilla force in Latin America, with 20,000 combatants. And the FARC is the only guerrilla army that has not been defeated by force of arms in Latin America. But satellite tracking and massive use of drones (unmanned spy planes) now allow their communications and movements to be tracked.

Secondly, the killings of the FARC’s top commanders (by means of the Israeli technique of selective killings) have made it more difficult for the guerrillas to regroup. In addition, some odious combat methods used by the FARC, such as kidnapping, summary execution of prisoners and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, have provoked rejection by a significant part of civil society.

The FARC are far from defeated, and could probably continue the conflict for years. But they are certainly not able to win it; the opportunity for a military victory has vanished. Peace talks, if they lead to a dignified agreement, would let them leave the field walking tall, to join political life.

But when Santos decided, to widespread surprise, to embark on peace negotiations with the insurgents, it was not only because the FARC were weakened militarily. It was also because the landowning oligarchy opposed to land reform (Colombia is practically the only country in Latin America that, because of the landowners’ blinkered attitude, has not redistributed land) were no longer the dominant power.

In the last few decades, a new urban oligarchy has become established, with far more power than the rural elites.

During the worst years of the war, the large cities were cut off from the countryside. It was impossible to travel overland from one place to another, and the portion of Colombia that was usable was limited to a sort of archipelago of cities. To these large cities came the millions of people fleeing the conflict, and dynamic, growing local economies were developed, based on industry, services, finance, import-export and other sectors.

Today, this is the economy that predominates in the country, and is to a certain extent represented by Santos, just as Uribe represents the large landowners who are opposed to the peace process.

The urban oligarchy wants peace for economic reasons. First, the cost of peace – probably a modest land reform – will be borne by the big landowners. The urban elites are not interested in the soil, but in the subsoil: pacification would allow exploitation of Colombia’s immense mineral resources, for which China is an insatiable market.

The urban business community also perceives that, if peace is achieved, the present excessive military expenditure could be devoted to reducing inequality, which continues to be enormous in the country. The entrepreneurs know that Colombia is heading towards a population of 50 million, a significant critical mass in terms of consumption, if average purchasing power rises.

They are aware of the redistribution policies taking place in several Latin American countries (Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and others) that have reactivated domestic production and promoted the growth of local businesses.

Meanwhile, Latin America is experiencing a high point in terms of integration, with the recent creation of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), in which Colombia plays an important role.

Given these dynamics, the war is an anachronism, as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has often claimed. The FARC know that this is the case. The time has come for both sides to lay down their arms.

Current events in Latin America show that, in spite of the hurdles, gaining power by peaceful, political means is possible for a progressive organisation. This has been proved in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Uruguay and Brazil, among other countries.

Many perils must still be faced. Opponents of peace (Pentagon hawks, ultra-rightwing members of the military, landowners and paramilitaries) will try to sabotage the process. But everything seems to indicate, while negotiations continue in Havana, that the end of the conflict is approaching. At last.(END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

Ignacio Ramonet is the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique in Spanish.

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