In his magnus opus 100 Years of Solitude, the late Colombian Nobel laureate, Gabriel García Márquez, warned his compatriots that “it is easier to begin a war than to end it”. And true enough, the country’s decades-old conflict with the FARC, preceded by another bloodshed simply referred to as La Violencia (the Violence), prove the point, as Colombia leapt from one violent episode to the next. But suddenly there’s optimism in the air.
In 2016, Colombians appeared to once again prove their most famous son right after rejecting a peace deal in a referendum – but almost a year later, the “no” vote in the plebiscite looks like just a short bump in the road. A slightly altered proposal passed Congress in November 2016, and the FARC have even completed the process of turning their weapons in. The shocking “no” vote in the plebiscite was only a short bump in the road.
It fits the good news that the FARC has declared that it will form a new political party, seemingly completing the transition from violent guerrilla to legal political actor. The question now is whether the Colombian government can fulfil the guarantees it has given the FARC in exchange for disarmament. History tells us that if it doesn’t, the consequences could be disastrous.
Colombia’s government and the FARC have tried to make peace before – and various of their efforts have ended in violent tragedy. The peace process in the 1980s was particularly traumatic – so traumatic that courts in Colombia declared that a “political genocide” had been committed against the FARC’s last formally organised party, Unión Patriotica (UP).
As is today’s, the 1980s peace plan was very ambitious. Negotiators sought to establish an amnesty for guerillas (approved in Congress in 1982), sign ceasefire agreements with most guerrilla organisations (completed in 1984), open a “National Dialogue” that included armed opposition (held in 1985), and encourage the formation of political parties to run candidates in local, regional, national elections (concluded in 1986 when the UP was formed).
After three decades of highly opaque two-party democracy, these measures dramatically lowered the barrier for political participation. But in a diabolical historical irony, the UP’s early success created what one analyst called “one of Colombia’s greatest political disasters”.
In its first election in 1986, the UP won five senate seats, nine deputies, 14 regional deputies, 23 mayors, and 351 councillors. All were elected on a platform of redistribution and land reform. But the party’s rhetoric of redistribution to benefit poor Colombians earned it not just the votes of the disenfranchised, but the wrath of a coalition of powerful forces – including landowners, drug traffickers and rogue elements within the state security apparatus.
By the mid-1990s, thousands of UP members and leaders had been killed by private militias, often liberally funded with cash from the flourishing drug trade. The party’s 1986 presidential candidate, Jaime Pardo Leal, was shot dead in front of his family in 1987. The 1990 candidate, Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa, was assassinated at Bogota airport. As the death toll mounted, the UP disintegrated; in 2002, it lost its official status as a political party, only regaining it in 2013 when a court accepted that the campaign of violence counted as “mitigating circumstances”.
The “politicide” of the UP remains one of the most indelible stains on Colombia’s human rights record, which is remarkably tarnished for a South American country that never endured a military dictatorship. The extermination of the party also badly undermined efforts to establish a negotiated peace with leftist insurgents – the FARC repeatedly rejected disarmament proposals, arguing that the government could not be trusted to stick to a peaceful deal. The fate of the UP made that view at least plausible.
Freedom from fear
Colombia’s democracy is still dangerous. The late Colombian political scientist Ana Maria Bejarano lamented that even while the country frequently holds free and fair elections whose outcomes are respected, its politicians, journalists, civil rights activists, and union leaders are still regularly assassinated. Even with the peace process apparently underway, the threat is still there – and since the negotiations began, threats against social leaders and assassinations have not receded, but surged.
The Defensor del Pueblo reports that between 2006 and 2011, at least 71 peasant leaders who returned to their stolen land were murdered. Since the beginning of 2016, almost 200 civil society leaders have been assassinated. A lawyer who represents former FARC leaders now reintegrating into civic life has alleged that criminal bands – the descendants of disbanded paramilitaries – have issued a bounty of US$1m on the life of every member of the FARC high secretariat.
If this peace process is to end differently from the three previous ones, both sides will have to honour their commitments. For its part, the FARC is making serious strides – now it has gone so far as to set up a new political party – the Colombian state must honour its commitments in turn. In the interest of peace, discontent must be channelled into peaceful, legitimate institutions that can help deal with it – if bad feeling is left to stagnate, it will provide endless fodder for violent anti-government opposition.
At the core of all this, legally sanctioned political actors must be able to interact with their political opponents without fearing for their lives as the UP’s members did. The freedom to exercise political rights depends on security from physical harm – and perhaps no other country in the Americas is more testament to that than Colombia.