Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Colombia still in a crucible

If you're at all interested in this sort of thing, you'll know that Colombia held its vote to approve the government-FARC peace agreement on Sunday, and the "no"s won narrowly (like with 50.2% or something).  In other words, a slight majority of those who voted thought the best tack to take is to continue the same war that's been grinding on for 50 years.  My family and I were very sad initially, though we've come to accept it after a day of mourning and thinking and discussion.

Through no intent of my own, I was engaged on the subject by an ignorant Spanish stranger that just happened to be in a public space near me.  His impressions enlightened me though on how the anti-peace coalition thinks.  Basically he felt that the Colombian government was making all the concessions, pulling their pants down so FARC could give it to them up the ass (his words, not mine).  This has been the timbre of most of the discourse of Colombia's far right against the peace process, that the FARC (bad guys) were getting the best of the government (whom the far right doesn't like either, but in this case they were presenting as the putative good guys).

I'm not interested in getting into the factual merits or lack thereof of such an argument, but I'll give them a very brief treatment.  First off, the FARC surely did feel like it was making concessions by laying down its arms, especially since the last time they tried to enter legitimate politics in the 1990s basically their entire party (the Union Patriotica) was hunted down and executed by death squads.  We're talking a few thousand people here, from small-town mayoral candidates to national politicians--an entire party eliminated.  So I assume that by the very act of negotiating, the FARC was giving up on its stated goal of a revolutionary takeover of the government, and certainly making a leap of faith given their prior documented history of suffering genocide.  Secondly, the negotiations themselves were a constant give and take, like any real negotiations.  The FARC brought a suite of points to the table and had to give way on all of them to arrive at points of agreement with the Colombian government.

The only real point on which it could be somewhat coherently said that the government conceded "too much" to the FARC was in what many have deemed the impunity or amnesty offered to ex-combatants.  But this is pretty standard practice in any post-conflict agreement.  Truth and reconciliation processes are what works to end drawn-out civil wars.  From South Africa to Rwanda to Guatemala, you have to recognize the rights of the victims to justice, while also recognizing that no armed actors will give up arms or power if their recompense will be vengeful persecution.  Even in Germany and Japan's resounding, unambiguous defeat in the Second World War, no one seriously proposed executing or imprisoning the entirety of those country's populations, even though they by and large supported the genocidal war effort.  You punish the key high-level offenders, and try to find a workable solution to deal with everyone else. 

Beyond this, the truth and reconciliation process proposed for the FARC was similar to that used for ex-combatants of the paramilitaries, with whom the government led peace talks and demobilization from 2003-2006.  This process was much less organized and transparent, offered more impunity to ex-combatants than the current FARC deal, and was not approved by any plebiscite to my knowledge.  But the people protesting the current FARC peace agreement were the very ones in charge of the "peace" process with the paramilitaries.  (I put "peace" in quotation marks, since paramilitaries were essentially aligned with the government at the time, and many of them "demobilized" from the AUC political grouping only to reconstitute themselves as apolitical criminal organizations like the Black Eagles or the Rastrojos).  Just for context, it is estimated that paramilitaries have accounted for about 60% of massacres in the six-decade conflict.

Anyway, I'm not interested in debating the facts of the prior three paragraphs, or discussing the relative merits of the FARC or any other actor.  No, to return to my talk with the boorish Spaniard, I realized that he (and by extension those in Colombia whose opinion he was summarizing) was not conceiving the peace talks in terms of a negotiated settlement that is best for a society, but rather as a zero-sum game of "my side versus their side".  If you think this way, it is understandable to vote against peace, to vote against anything but complete annihilation or conversion of the other side.  My Spanish interlocutor said as much when he held up the example of how Spain dealt with ETA through a mix of force and criminal prosecution.  He did get tripped up though when marveling at the close outcome of the Colombian vote, at which I reminded him that a civil war by definition pits a large part of the population against another large part.  You can't annihilate half the population--that's why the Colombian war is going on sixty years with no clear military victory.  It is not very comparable to the Spanish situation, where ETA is a small ethnic sectarian group that neither claims nor aspires to represent anything but a tiny proportion of the country's population.

In contrast to looking out only for "your side", to making sure your guys get the better end of the deal, is to think of what's best for your nation as a whole, which I would characterize as the motivation driving those who voted in favor of peace.  It's pretty clear to me that a vote for peace was not for most people a vote in favor of FARC's principles, nor of the government's (neither of these groups enjoys anywhere near the whole-hearted support of half the population), but rather in favor of a negotiated solution to the conflict and many of its underlying causes.  I seem to be supported in my interpretation here by the fact that the areas most affected by the war, and often with the biggest justifiable axe to grind against the FARC, are those that voted in favor of peace.  In fact, a town called Bojaya that was the site of what's regarded as FARC's worst massacre of civilians, voted 96% in favor of the peace accords.  It was only in the central regions of Colombia, which have been somewhat insulated from the worst of recent fighting, that people clung to an ideologically pure but totally unworkable idea of "we don't negotiate with terrorists" and voted against peace.

Indeed, the five points of the peace agreement deal with agrarian development, political participation for groups excluded from the mainstream system, an end to the conflict, the fight against illicit crops like coca, and the categorization and compensation of victims of the conflict.  These are all good things for the country.  But if you are fixated not on the good of the country but rather sticking it to your sworn enemy, then you don't care so much whether the proposals are good, but simply where they came from.  This is a luxury only available to those who are not suffering the brunt of the violence.  Those stuck in the hot zones recognize that no side's hands are clean in this war, so we must accept good, workable ideas from any quarter.

At any rate, a slight majority of Colombians voted "no" to peace, so that's where we're at now.  I thought President Santos and the FARC negotiators were both politically astute and very brave in their response to the vote.  They basically called on those leading the "no" campaign (namely ex-President Uribe) to meet with them and offer their own proposals for peace, since the claim of the "no" camp was that they do indeed want peace, just not on the terms negotiated over 4 years by the government.  I think this move was astute, because it puts the onus on the naysayers to actually propose something coherent or to risk showing themselves as totally incoherent.  Ideally this would prevent a situation similar to the past few years in the US, where the right wing has been the party of perennial "no"s to any realistic policy proposal, without ever having to propose an alternative of their own.  But Santos is also being brave, because if he is indeed committed to peace at any personal cost (as he seems to be), then he will be open to brokering a peace deal that will not go down in posterity with his name on it.  Such a deal would instead be paraded by the zero-sum "my dick is bigger than yours" crowd precisely as evidence that Santos was ineffective, and that only Uribe was able to achieve peace.  In other words, Santos is willing to lose face and the pissing contest if it will achieve a broadly-accepted peace agreement.  In latest news, Uribe's proposal for peace looks a lot like the negotiated deal.  There's an internet meme circulating that says, "If only he'd read the peace agreement before the vote..."

Here is a bit more context and analysis on the whole affair.

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