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The Dangerous Charm of Forgiveness
Published on International Political Forum. November 30, 2014.
Colombian General Dario Rubén Alzate was captured by the FARC, the largest Colombian guerrilla group in a small village in the north of the country on Sunday 16 November.
The circumstances surrounding the event remain mysterious. It is not clear why Alzate happened to be wandering in a zone of the coastal state of Chocó that was known to be controlled by the guerrillas, nor why he did so wearing civilian clothes, and accompanied only by another military official and a HR lawyer, also captured by the FARC that same day.
Alzate will be remembered as the first-ever general to be captured by the guerrillas. He is, to date, the highest-ranking military official to have fallen in the hands of the FARC. But he is also, and much more importantly, the man whose detention now threatens to undermine the delicate peace process which Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos has been undertaking with the guerrillas leaders since August 2012.
Peace talks suspended
The event forced Santos to declare all negotiations with the FARC suspended. The peace talks between the government and the armed groups, which since November 2012 have been taking place in Havana, Cuba, have now come to an abrupt halt, not to resume while Alzate and the other detainees remain in the FARC’s hands.
The conflict between the Colombian government and the guerrillas dates back 50 years. The FARC did not originate in a vacuum, but developed as a response to a specific political and historical moment. On the one hand, the guerrillas came to life in the middle of the 1960s as the by-product of Colombia’s shrinking political stage. After a decade of civil strife known as La Violencia (1946-1958), during which clashes between affiliates of the Liberal and Conservative party caused some 300.000 deaths, the two leading political movements came to a agreement known as the National Front (1958-1974). The pact marked the beginning of a power-sharing window in which Liberals and Conservatives alternated each other at the country’s helm, and effectively froze Colombia’s political spectrum. Seen from this angle, the FARC came about as the reaction of the politically marginalised groups who stood beyond the Liberal-Conservative duo and could not contend power in any meaningful way.
But on the other hand, the FARC emerged as a response to the violence and deprivations suffered from the rural poor during and after the years of La Violencia. To some extent, the guerrillas championed an ‘ethos campesino’: they took upon themselves the fate of the marginalized and war-stricken farmers of Colombia’s interior and posited themselves as the alternative to the established political institutions. Thus, across areas where the central State had effectively ceased to exist and to retain the monopoly of coercion, the guerrillas became proto-states which operated in accordance with norms and structures of their own, and promised safety to the polity in exchange of their contribution to the insurgency’s cause.
Both readings do shed some light on the FARC’s inception, but must also be carefully spelled out. At one level, the National Front was never a watertight system, and the groups who stood outside the Liberal-Conservative binary could nonetheless influence policy making, albeit to a limited extent. At another, conceiving of the FARC as the bulwark of Colombia’s peasantry is to overly-romanticise a movement and overlook the atrocities it has committed over more than half a century of conflict. How do we square the image of the guerrillas as the alleged champions of the poor’s cause with their abysmal human rights records? What are we to make of the kidnappings, the killings, and the exploitation of narco-trafficking that have featured across FARC-controlled territories?
Blow to president’s efforts
All these questions gained new strength on Sunday when Alzate disappeared in the hands of the guerrillas. The general’s kidnapping is a huge blow to Santos’ efforts, not simply because it stands as one of the FARC’s most important victories, but because it revealed the troublesome dichotomy upon which the peace process lies. The government is, at once, talking peace in Cuba with a delegation of guerrilla leaders, while the war against them in Colombian soil continues. The worry is that striking an agreement in La Habana may not mean the end of the conflict at home.
Proof of this is the fact that the FARC delegates appeared surprised by the news of Alzate’s kidnapping, as if the two segments – delegates and guerrilla fighters – operated somewhat independently from each other. This opens up a number of worries: who exactly is it that Santos’ government is dealing with? And what are the guarantees that the FARC will stay true to their promises, once de-mobilised?
Santos’ strategy stands in open contrast with the one championed by his predecessor and former political ally Alvaro Uribe. The former president chose military repression over dialogue as the means to solve the conflict with the FARC, a strategy that was encapsulated in his Democratic Security Policy. To be sure, the DSP did manage to significantly reduce the guerrillas’ threats. Data shows that guerrilla-caused killings went down significantly under Uribe’s two mandates (2002-2010) as did overall security indicators. Nonetheless, the improvements went to the detriment of Colombia’s human rights record, and in a number of departments the government’s tactics only exacerbated violence and increased the size of the internally displaced populace. Alzate’s kidnapping may now revamp the reasoning underpinning Uribe’s policies: peace cannot be negotiated, it can only be won.
The fear is that this logic could, in the long run, turn out to be counterproductive. A long-lasting peace can only be obtained through a strategy that can tackle the issues that lie at the origins of the guerrillas. In other words, what is needed is a treaty that can address the FARC’s reintegration into political life, as well as the farmers’ plight that lied at the core of the guerrillas’ genesis. And Santos, for all the doubts and risks that his Cuban peace talks leave unanswered, does have both items in his agenda. The 6-points programme that FARC and government have been discussing in La Habana touches upon the guerrillas re-absorption in the country’s political stage as well as the agrarian reform the FARC have asked for the poorest rural populace.
But if a durable peace must answer the causes of the guerrillas’ development, it must also address the human rights and violations these have committed throughout their history. Should the thousands of guerrilla fighters that would be de-mobilised at the end of the peace talks be paying for their past crimes? And if so, to what extent?
This too is an item in Santos’ agenda – but it could be significantly harder to achieve than any of the others. On June 6 2014, both the government and FARC admitted their responsibility for the violence and abuses committed during the conflict. But little has yet been done to place the discussion within a legal framework. The FARC’s delegates have declared they will fight for amnesty and will call for a referendum for the Colombian people to decide whether or not to grant them pardon, while Justice Minister Reyes replied that this possibility is something only the president can decide on.
But granting complete amnesty is a challenge that Santos may find particularly troublesome. On the one hand, the decision may further deteriorate the president’s approval, already plummeted from 60% in September to 45% today. On the other, with the 2005 amendments to the Justice and Peace Law the Constitutional Court ruled that human rights violations cannot be considered political crimes, and, consequently, cannot be subject to amnesty or pardon. But there is another, more general level which calls for further scrutiny.
Are peace and justice not compatible? Can Colombia’s new order not go hand in hand with a system of punishments, however tough or symbolic these may be, for those who have been responsible for the atrocities of the past 50 years – armed groups and state officials alike? A veritable end to Colombia’s internal conflict will only come through a treaty that will answer the causes that led to the emergence of the guerrillas, and provide justice to the conflict’s victims. Peace can – and should be – negotiated, but this should never be at the expense of those who have suffered from its lack in the first place.