Peace finally possible in Colombia, justice less certain

An agreement to end five decades of armed conflict between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government of that country now seems inevitable. With the parties submitting a joint request to the United Nations to send a team to monitor implementation, it appears they are confident of making a March deadline for a final resolution.

Throughout the negotiations, which have already stretched for more than three years, FARC has consistently said it wants not just peace, but a peace that includes social justice. Recent moves on the part of the government to entrench the power of domestic and international capital, however, make the likelihood of such an outcome look more uncertain by the day.

Already falling by the wayside is FARC’s proposal for a post-agreement constituent assembly to deal with issues of societal change that were left unaddressed in negotiations. As the government moves ahead with measures that delight the country’s wealthy elite and enforce the economic oppression of Colombia’s majority population, it is clear the idea of social change is definitely not on its agenda.

Instead, just as a deal finally seems possible, the government is demonstrating a renewed aggressiveness that will severely test peacetime struggles by ex-guerrillas and Colombia’s broader progressive movement.In the wake of the left’s feeble showings in both the March 2014 parliamentary elections and local contests held in Octoberlast year, Colombia’s old guard has re-asserted itself.

On January 13, President Juan Manuel Santos’ government auctioned off a 57.6 percent interest in the state-owned Isagen power company to Brookside Asset Management of Canada. The alleged purpose of the salewas to raise funds for highway-building.

Brookside, with assets worth $225 billion and 28,000 employees in 20 countries, paid $1.9 billion for Medellin-based Isagen, operator of Colombia’s largest hydroelectric plant and supplier of 20 percent of the country’s electricity. In what is described as the “largest privatization in the country in nearly a decade,” the government achieved no more than its minimum selling price. Brookside, the sole bidder, values Isagen at $2.2 billion andis looking to add the company to its international portfolio of assets in “property, renewable energy, infrastructure and private equity.” Half of these are in the United States.

The left-leaning USO oil-workers union predicted recently that state-owned Ecopetrol corporation would be next on the list for privatization. And newly elected right-wing Bogotá mayor Enrique Peñalosa has revived a campaign to privatize the city-owned ETB telephone company as well as a plan to sell off Empresa de Aqueducto, the state-owned water company.

Other measures that strengthen the position of big capital have also been in the works. A month prior to the Isagen sale, the Colombian Congress approved Law 223, establishing what it called “Zones of Interest for Rural, Economic and Social Development,” or ZIDRES. Head FARC negotiator IvánMárquez castigated the ZIDRES as a “crafty stab wound” to the agreement on agrarian reform, which was the first agenda item in discussions with the government. The victimization of small farmers and rural inhabitants is one of the primary injustices that prompted the FARC’sformation all the way back in 1964, and the ZIDRES plan seems destined to recreate the same problems.

According to the government, the ZIDRES will “create special lines of credit and action plans for bank funding of productive projects.” The question then becomes what projects will be designated as “productive.” The agricultureminister, Juan Fernando Cristo,has declared the ZIDRES will be a “sort of free trade zone for agriculture.” Primarily, the new regulation modifies a 1994 agrarian reform law that had authorized the transfer of idle land to family-sized agricultural units. That previous law didn’t apply to land declared idle under earlier agrarian reform laws. The new legislation, however, opens up that previously protected land and allows it to be concentrated for industrial agricultural purposes under perpetually-renewable leases.

Oxfam has criticized the ZIDRES measure, saying it”works against…small-scale agricultural production,” and would legalize large-scale land accumulation and increase the inequality already plaguing Colombia. The law’s reach is immense. Referring to some of the regions in Colombia, one critic characterized it as a handover of “all of Orinoquia, part of Magdalena Medio, part of Pacífico, part of Amazonia, and part of Catatumbo to businesses that produce bio-fuels.”

The government’s sell-offs, along with its other recent oppressive measures, are provoking opposition.Rising inflation and a hike in the sales tax from 16 to 19 percent, for instance, erase any positive effect from a recent increase in the minimum wage.The Agrarian Summit, a formation that arose following a 2013 agricultural strike,recently issued an open letter to President Santos with multiple complaints implicitly threatening another strike. A report from the Rural Press Agencywarns that the government’s failure to pull back from its program of privileging private interests over those of the poorest people and the middle classes “will create the right conditions for a national strike.”

The United States has not been absent from the Colombian peace negotiations. It’s role in the country’s future is linked to the continued presence of seven U.S. military bases and personnel, $9 billion of military support under Plan Colombia, and its position as the nation’s largest trading partner.

Participation in the talks by former U.S. diplomat Bernard Aronsonas a “special envoy”symbolizes U.S. concerns over post-conflict arrangements in Colombia. According to a report in theThe Washington Post Aronson has tried to assure negotiators on both sides “that the United States, having funded one side of the war, is prepared to help fund the peace for both.” Aronson is quoted as saying, “The United States is going to be supportive of the implementation, just as we have been in other post-conflict settlements.”

The other settlements referred to include the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran peace processes, both of which Aronson himself participated in. The Salvadoran settlement in 1992 enabled leftist insurgentsto enter regular politics. Their political party, the FMLN, went on to hold power, yet El Salvador remains stuck with great wealth inequalities, deadly violence, and exploitative natural resources extraction. It was years before the left returned to power in Nicaragua, where inequality and poverty remain major problems.

Such outcomes overshadow FARC’s hopes for a better result in Colombia.Echoing former Cuban president Fidel Castro, FARC guerrilla Ronald Guerrero told an interviewer in 2008, “We don’t want a pax Romana. We want a democratic and socialist government and land for those who work it.” The fear is that such a U.S.-imposed peace is just what the Colombian government is abetting. 

Photo: AP


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont and now lives in rural Maine. He practiced and taught pediatrics for 35 years and long ago joined the Cuba solidarity movement, working with Let Cuba Live of Maine, Pastors for Peace, and the Venceremos Brigade. He writes on Latin America and health issues for the People's World.