Colombia’s National Encounter for the Land and Peace: Is a Political Solution Possible?

 by James Jordan

The popular movement for a political solution in Colombia has taken a big step forward with the recent National Encounter for the Land and Peace. The August 12-15th gathering in Barrancabermeja was attended by more than 20,000 persons, bringing together peasant, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, along with government officials, unionists, student leaders, leaders of social movements and various political parties, as well as international observers. The event’s theme was “Dialogue as a route to peace.” It was convened by the Peasant Association of the Valley of the Cimitarra River (ACVC, by its Spanish initials).

Mural from Barrancabermeja

That the Encounter took place is in itself a challenge to the military solution favored by the US government. Through Plan Colombia, the US has provided Colombia with more than $7 billion, most of that going to support the military and National Police. Other portions have been linked to projects to build jails where political prisoners are concentrated, and to large grants to paramilitary owners of African Palm plantations. US insistence that Colombian insurgents be treated as terrorists rather than belligerent forces has undermined progress toward a peace process.

Signs from the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos regarding the Encounter have been mixed at best. The event received support and funding from the office of Vice President Angelino Garzón. However, the opening session of the Encounter was dampened by the news that the Colombian Armed Forces had begun an indiscriminate bombardment of the municipality of Chaparral in Southern Tolima.

Also, that same day, Pres. Santos declared that the door to peace was “…closed with a key, and I have the key in my pocket.” A few days before, Santos had commented that “There are many people who do not want peace and many people who want to play a leading role, and the advocacy for peace is very harmful.”  These statements contrasted sharply with various sectors attending or sending messages to the Encounter.

Among representatives of the Catholic Church, participants heard the words of Monsignor Camilo Castrellón, Bishop of Barrancabermeja, who said,

“The opening of an objective dialogue…excludes pretense, rivalries, deceptions, betrayals….We do not believe that one can arrive at a stable peace as the fruit of an end composed of the victors and the defeated….Without dialogue, peace will never be possible.”

Many credit the Marcha Patriotica (Patriotic March) of July, 2010 as a beginning point that led to the Encuentro in Barrancabermeja. The Marcha Patriotica and FENSUAGRO, the largest organization of peasant farmers and farm workers in Colombia, released a joint statement calling for,

“…dialogue among the rural communities, the unions, the government and the Colombian insurgency concerning the most important themes for the construction of political proposals for peace in Colombia ….[and] for all the political and social actors to sit down to think and construct from the hopes of the country, proposals for peace, and not for war.”

The Marcha Patriotica emphasized several central issues as crucial for a just peace:

“The unity of the peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendant communities comes together to insist that the elements to build an agenda for peace are: a true, democratic and popular agrarian reform, the recognition of the social and armed conflict, the necessity of a humanitarian accord, the freedom and dignity of the more than 8,000 political prisoners, the majority of them civilians, belonging to the social and popular movements, found in the Colombian jails under precarious conditions.”

A few days before the Encuentro began, the FARC announced plans to, once again, unilaterally release several of its captives through the mediation of ex-Senator Piedad Córdoba. She has been the central negotiator in securing a series of such releases. Córdoba and the organization Colombians for Peace have circulated a number of open letters with the FARC and the ELN and has called on the FARC to release all its remaining prisoners, which are believed to number between 10 and 20 persons.

In an August 14th message, the FARC stated that, “We reiterate, before this Encounter, our indeclinable commitment to deliver all our energies and efforts to receive ideas and accompany the search for formulas that clear the way for dialogue, in order to pull the country out of the dark night of terror to which it has been submitted these 63 years….”

In opening the Encounter, the ACVC gave its analysis that, “We believe…that it is necessary to interpret as positive the…recent messages of the guerrillas, the FARC and ELN, expressing their availability for dialogue…such as their call…for citizens to mobilize for peace as a fundamental method to achieve it. On the other hand, it is very positive that those who make up the model of the Mafioso State are losing political space before those who opt for a conventional state under “Rule of Law”.

Vice President Garzón declared his support for all the proposals adopted at the Encounter. However, he also declared that “from the guerrillas we need deeds of peace”, including immediately setting at liberty their captives, an end to the use of child soldiers and an end to the violence.

The words of President Santos, a few days earlier, had been much more blunt:

“There is a popular saying that you can’t castrate a dog twice. The FARC have deceived the government and population of Colombia many times, and have utilized the processes of peace in order to rearm themselves, to catch their breaths, to continue fighting. This we are not going to permit.”

However, recent signs indicate an insincerity to these words and a refusal to recognize good faith efforts of the guerrillas toward opening a process of dialogue. While there have been a number of high profile and unilateral releases of captives being held by the FARC, there has been absolutely no similar move on the part of the Colombian government regarding its political prisoners. Only an estimated 500 to 1,000 of these are believed to be guerrilla combatants. Others are held for acts of nonviolent organizing or because they were peasants refusing to be displaced. As many as 5,000 political prisoners are family farmers and farm workers. Political prisoners are mostly unionists, members of the political opposition, students, journalists and members of the social movements.

Regarding Santos charge that the FARC only takes advantage of a peace process to rearm itself, one must not forget the example of the Patriotic Union–a memory that is seared in the mind of the Colombian Left. In 1985 the FARC, along with Leftists not involved in armed struggle, founded the Patriotic Union in order to enter into the legal political process. Over a ten year period, some 4 to 5,000 of their candidates and elected officials were assassinated, including two presidential candidates. Similarly, while the government calls on the guerrillas to put an end to violence, it must be noted that throughout the history of the armed conflict, any given year, the Colombian Armed Forces and paramilitary allies have been responsible for 70 to 80% of all political violence.

And while no one who cares about peace can approve of the use of child soldiers, it must be noted that Colombia has been racked by the false-positive scandal, in which Colombian Armed Forces, with the involvement of personnel from its highest ranks, are known to have killed as many as 3,000 civilians, most of them youth and students. Their cadavers were subsequently dressed to look like guerrillas and falsely claimed as “enemy combatants”.

When I was visiting in a village of the municipality of Corinto, Cauca, in 2008, we saw a video that graphically illustrated the dangers of being a young person in a rural zone of conflict. The video showed two teenagers who had been murdered by members of the Armed Forces while they were sitting on the floor eating supper. The house and surrounding houses also showed signs of an indiscriminate attack on the village that had occurred earlier when US supplied Apache helicopters flew over head, spraying the village with bullets. As soon as the youth had been killed, villagers surrounded the scene of the crime as well as the soldiers, with video recorders rolling and calling for officials to come immediately to investigate. The villagers refused to let the soldiers leave–and refused to allow these young people to be dressed up to become yet two more false positives.

A subsequent investigation confirmed that this was indeed a murder committed by the military. However, no one was jailed for this crime. This reflects another sad reality of state sponsored and paramilitary violence–that in Colombia there exists a more than 99% impunity rate for such political killings.

While at this village, we heard testimony after testimony of similar killings and disappearances, especially in regards to the youth. The Alliance for Global Justice condemns the use of child soldiers. And we condemn the killing and maiming of children by the Colombian Armed Forces and recognize that this may be part of the reason some children are compelled to take up arms.

During the days around the Encounter, there were several signs that certain sectors were acting to sabotage this movement even as it was being born. Already mentioned was the indiscriminate attack on the municipality of Chaparral on the Encounter’s opening day. Meanwhile, in the Department of Putumayo, seven leaders were arbitrarily arrested from the Putumayo Peasant Association.

Most distressing of all is the news that on August 18th, just three days after the Encuentro’s closing, Piedad Córdoba left Colombia because of the increase of death threats against her. In June, Córdoba’s cousin and human rights activist Ana Fabricia Córdoba was assassinated in Medellín. Since then, the number of death threats against the families of both Piedad and Ana Fabricia Córdoba have greatly increased, with the government forced to provide protection for members of Ana Fabricia Córdoba’s family, while other members of Piedad Córdoba’s family have sought refuge in other countries. On August 3rd, ex-President Álvaro Uribe insisted publicly that he be included as a victim in legal procedures against Piedad Córdoba, saying that her negotiations with the FARC for the release of prisoners were somehow connected to alleged attacks and threats against him by the FARC. Such irresponsible and inflammatory remarks by Pres. Uribe have been used in the past as a tactic by which personalities are singled out for threats and harassment.

That Piedad Córdoba has been forced into exile is a distressing setback to the Colombian peace movement. She was trusted not only by the guerrillas, but by paramilitaries who had asked (and received) her help to advocate for the return to Colombia of their leaders who had been extradited to the United States, thus deprived the right to stand trial and face charges at home.

But despite these setbacks, reports from those participating in the Encuentro have been overwhelmingly positive. As FENSUAGRO’s President Eberto Diaz Montes told me, “I am convinced that if a strong movement for peace is achieved and the social and popular sectors put themselves into this mobilization, we can oblige the government to sit down together at the same table with the insurgency.”

He went on to emphasize the important role of the US solidarity movement in advocating for peace in Colombia. He said,

“The military aid of the United States and Plan Colombia constitute one of the greatest obstacles to peace…The US must not continue intervening in this conflict and maintaining that peace is not possible. It must stop calling the armed insurgency terrorists because this blocks dialogue and it also shows a double standard regarding political violence in the country….Unfortunately, the military industrial complex and foreign corporations are mostly interested in making profits. When farming families are displaced by the war, it’s the corporations and the big land owners who go in to exploit the land and its resources….There is a chance to advance a serious peace process in our country….Right now the US is playing a game with gasoline. It’s as if they are setting the whole country on fire.”

The Final Declaration of the Encuentro was a Manifesto for the Land and Peace. One particular paragraph summed up in a few points the sense of the meeting:

“General declarations concerning peace and dialogue are insufficient and many times have been accompanied by escalations of the war. For this reason, the Encounter demands gestures and deeds from all parties that would indicate positive responses to the cries of the population and of the peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendant communities: An end to forced displacement and dispossession; Unconditional respect for the rights of women and children and the guarantee of and respect for victims’ rights; No militarization of the territories, with respect for the autonomy of the indigenous peoples.

Stop the war and build the peace. This is the hour for the political solution.”