For the past year or so, Colombia has been steadily implementing the terms of the peace agreement that earned President Juan Manuel Santos a Nobel Peace Prize. The final step of the process is the transformation of former guerrilla fighters into a new political party to enable them to participate peacefully in parliamentary politics.
The insurgent organisation was called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army, or FARC-EP by its Spanish initials. One of the questions surrounding this historic event was whether this name would survive the group’s transition into a political party. The question became a trending topic with FARC leaders even taking to Twitter to seek the people’s opinion on the name for their political party.
Regardless, the FARC announced it would be keeping its acronym, albeit with a different name: Revolutionary Alternative Force of the Commons. The statement received lukewarm reactions at best, and garnered some opposition from a multitude of voices over the inevitable association of the acronym with memories of kidnapping, extortion or worse.
On the other hand, there are those, like the Communist Party, who see this decision as a way of embracing the history of resistance in a country where around 4000 leftists were systematically assassinated by a loose alliance of landowners, politicians and the military.
In the middle of the controversy, it came as a surprise that the FARC had a higher approval rate than other political parties. This might seem appropriate given that politicians in Colombia have endured constant scandals related to corruption, collaboration with illegal organisations and electoral fraud.
From low-intensity conflict to low-effectiveness peace?
In the past couple of years, while the Colombian government has been developing the peace process with the FARC, different organisations have reported an increase in the assassinations of social leaders and human rights defenders in 2016. Between January 1, 2016, and March 1, 2017, a special report made for a Colombian public defender registered 156 homicides, five forced disappearances and 33 cases of attacks.
Despite the reports, the situation persisted, especially in the farthest parts of the country, and with a focus on those areas where the FARC had a strong presence. Human rights organisations and social leaders demand more attention from the Colombian government. Past attempts at achieving peace have failed because of the state’s inability to prevent the selective murder of former combatants. The most relevant antecedent would be the extermination of the Union Patriotica Party in the early 1980s. The authorities have attributed such killings as an attempt – by emerging criminal bands – to take over the illegal economy that financed the war for so many years.
On the other hand, in the last few months, the FARC guerrilla leaders have been denouncing the slow implementation of the points of the peace agreement concerning the negligent actions by state agents while performing tasks related to the substitution of illegal crops. It is uncertain to what extent the peace agreement will be fulfilled, and ample historical evidence provides doubts. For example, the pattern of murders resembles those of previous failed peace efforts, albeit at a lesser rate. FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez, better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, wrote a letter to Santos expressing concern at the new legislation aimed at modifying the peace agreement. Santos depleted his political capital securing the agreement, and it is unlikely that other politicians will refrain from gaining some by appealing to detractors of a negotiated solution.
The youth and the party
Life and politics are complicated by clandestinity. In effect, the question of whether the FARC had any influence or relationship with student movements – or any other movement, really – was barred by the possibility of prosecution. For years, the result was a very confusing message on the part of the student Left. The community would claim the innocence of individuals incarcerated or investigated, while at the same time, conceding that the insurgents were politically active – and thus had to be taken seriously.
Enter the Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth), an organisation that was immediately questioned by the media about the exact relationship they had with former fighters and with possible illegal activities. The first article in which they appear in the mainstream newspaper El Espectador says: ‘spokespeople for this movement assure they have not been financed by the erstwhile guerrilla group’. The tone is ambiguous, to say the least, and it reveals the anxiety the country hides beneath the surface.
Ultimately, it is the youth who will develop the mentality of peace. Most people who grew up during the conflict will always have trouble of letting go of the survival mentality and subsequent hostility that they were forced to develop during those years. On the contrary, the youth grew up at a time of military de-escalation and when public discourse was favourable to peace. This is best seen when comparing the imagery of the previous generation – focused on military slogans inspired by revolutionaries such a Lenin, Mao, and Che – to the diversity of the current ones, which include environmental, gender, artistic and many other types of issues alongside classical political ones.
With a deteriorating world situation, there is perhaps very little cause to hope. But the Colombian process does have a lot to show for the creative resilience of its people, even when confronted with the enemies of peace.
Sergio Rueda is a freelance writer/translator and is completing his BA in philosophy at the Universidad Industrial de Santander. A former student activist, he has published several articles on Colombia’s armed and political struggles. Neliza Chicangana is a history and archival sciences student at the Universidad Industrial de Santander.