At last, peace in Columbia?

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.

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

Path of negotiation

Why has president Santos, who was an implacable opponent of the guerrillas as defence minister under former president Alvaro 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 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.

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 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. 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.

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.

Comments (+)