After a fast-tracked beginning in the implementation of Colombia’s peace agreement, president Iván Duque is seeking significant changes to the 2016 initiative between the FARC guerrillas and former president Juan Manuel Santos. Duque recently made public his government’s evaluation of the peace process, that has ushered in a critical crossroads: de-escalation towards peace, or the prolongation of intractable conflict in a country divided over the agreements. Duque’s election occurs after heightened tensions between his party (Democratic Center) and the agreement’s supporters in recent years.
Polarization in the context of a new government
Political polarization around the peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas in Colombia is recently represented by two main figures: former president Juan Manuel Santos, author of the agreement; and former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, leader of the party behind Iván Duque’s election. Uribe Vélez, who’s accused of human rights violations and who’s father was killed by guerrillas, played a key role as president in the military’s efforts to weaken FARC, aided by Santos as Minister of Defence. During Santos’ presidency, he led the campaign against the failed referendum in 2016 to ratify the peace agreement, with 50.22% of votes rejecting it. Moreover, Uribe Vélez heavily opposed Santos’ administration for distancing from his, and argues that benefits such as monthly stipends to guarantee disarmament and reinsertion of former combatants are debilitating for the nation, in addition to costs of peace that caused tax increases.
Uribe Vélez during his first term as president showed a vague attempt to sign a peace agreement with the FARC, but his disparate statements over his commitment and the absence of a negotiation space prevented the process from beginning, despite the FARC’s outreach efforts. In fact, Duque’s party (Democratic Center) is known for using a radical kind of rhetoric: During the 2018 presidential elections, they campaigned against leftist candidate Gustavo Petro arguing that the former member of the M-19 guerrilla and defender of the peace agreement would turn Colombia into Venezuela.
The left was also antagonized during peace negotiations, where the role of Venezuela and Cuba as guarantors ignited past grievances between Uribe Vélez and Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, since he insisted that peace would mean “giving the country away” to FARC. Recently, a hold in negotiations with the ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrilla was caused by Duque rejecting Venezuela as guarantor, a process that began with former president Santos.
As for the course of Duque’s administration, the biggest changes proposed in their evaluation will relate to: Land restitution and illegal crop eradication programs, the political representation of the FARC, and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP in Spanish). As their evaluation explains, Temporary Transition Zones (ZVTN in Spanish) will become the staging ground for the reintegration of ex-combatants and will serve as the focal point for institutional peacebuilding efforts at local, regional, and national levels. In addition, the evaluation adds new parameters for a previously fast-tracked and precarious implementation in presence of illegal armed groups and FARC’s dissident factions.
Vague solutions to a precarious implementation of the rural reform
Rural reforms to better conditions for peasants –a core issue for FARC aim to change under Duque’s leadership according to their evaluation. In this regard, the new government argues that the state is “making promises it cannot keep”, without going into further explanation (pg 44) and vaguely emphasizing the importance of the “do not harm” principle in an uncertain strategy for illegal crop replacement. The only clarity made on this issue, is their promise not to punish “small producers” (peasants, considered victims of conflict).
According to the evaluation, economic access will be conditioned by the eradication of illegal crops. This is a thorny issue after an imposed aerial eradication with glyphosate, a highly toxic substance, and a voluntary crop replacement program stagnant since March under Santos’ administration. As a result, Coca plantations increased in prioritized municipalities as illegal groups pay peasants to grow it, while others are internally displaced in absence of economic and safety conditions.
The modification of rural reforms is one of the main fears of the defenders of the 2016 agreement, arguing an intent of deliberately harming the peasants, the most vulnerable victims in the armed conflict. However, uncertainty around the practical aspects of the new approach, in addition to the precarity of past implementation efforts makes it difficult to see how aligned or misaligned the new government is with what was agreed upon, and contingent on further developments that could arise.
Unclear security measures after an absence of the state
Duque’s government states in their evaluation their commitment to set a security plan for all war victims, former combatants, and social leaders, in disapproval of polarizing violence and to guarantee peace. However, this security plan is yet to be designed and implemented to detail, while the precarious situation in the Transition Zones aggravates since programs are on hold since the beginning of the year and before the end of the Santos’ administration in August 2018.
This is especially worrisome for community leaders, who have been victims of systematic murders over the years, because of their efforts to counter corruption within social, political, and economic structures. Additionally, illegally armed groups and dissident factions from FARC play a role within a historic and problematic absence of the state, showing how far we are from generating the conditions for a dialogue that can improve social cohesion and guarantee basic need satiation for conflict actors.
Resource allocation: main modifications
As the first scenario for post-conflict, Temporary Transition Zones are currently vulnerable on many fronts, including the new government’s schedule for a gradual cut back of the zones’ meals and supplies in the next couple months, ahead of their definitive closure in August 2019.
Duque is also cutting back on precarious initiatives and creating the program “Obras por impuestos” (loosely translated “buildings for taxes”). The strategy prioritizes tertiary road constructions, and opening the door of the Colombia in Peace Fund (Fondo Colombia en Paz) to private companies. These will decide along with organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union how to allocate all peacebuilding resources.
To further engage the private sector, tax discounts of 20% or 30% are offered for investments “renovating” or transferring technology to prioritized municipalities, while public purchase of lands and fair trade agreements aim to also generate income for ex-combatants and their families.
Also, the new government assesses structural flaws in implementation. For instance, emphasizing on the articulation of institutions and standardized channels is a timely response to a historically difficult challenge since topography, infrastructure, and conflict, have limited the reach of the state. However, the new head of state has increased the budget for war in proof of his support of the War on Drugs. Previous attempts heavily aided by security and military action had negative effects, like the birth of criminal city gangs (BaCrim), dissident fractions that spread in small groups with loose structures and linkage.
The FARC in a polarizing political landscape
According to the evaluation, Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) amnesties for FARC ex-combatants will removed, and a special court for war crimes and reparation will be heavily re-structured. In addition, FARC’s 16 spots in the Chamber of Representatives will be reserved only for those who can exit the ambiguous new justice system (pg 25).
These modifications and others regarding the new political scenario have been widely opposed by the FARC, because of a lack of aptitude to negotiate during the current government, and the failure to materialize agreements under the last. The FARC manifest that successful implementation actions have been achieved by international organisms, and that the new government is pursuing a war with the former guerrilla through judicial means in a letter to the JEP.
Duque attempts to distance his government from controversial concepts related to the termination of conflict, and draw it closer to what he calls “stabilization”. This might be the reason why the previously called Temporary Transition Zones (Zonas Veredales Transitorias de Normalización - ZVTN) are called Spaces for Training and Reincorporation (Espacios Territoriales de Capacitación y Reincorporación - ETCR) in the new government’s evaluation. Arbitrarily changing definitions agreed upon –a key element for conflict resolution, could reinforce the idea of peace as taboo topic in an increasingly divided public opinion.
In their evaluation document, the new government mentions the importance of preventing further stigmatization, a key element to manage polarization, but there aren’t concrete actions backing their commitment. FARC militias were brought up in rural areas as a response to an absence of the state, and segregating them causes further radicalization as it occured over 50 years ago, when the first FARC members decided to join in arms due to the state’s refusal to invest in a bridge to connect their communities with larger municipalities.
Conditioning FARC’s participation in society with a new justice system, terms, and rules not agreed upon risks undermining the new party’s unity, which may usher in a radical change in conditions that could contribute to conflict escalation, already manifested in dissident groups. Also, polarization and stigmatization shadowed efforts to make all citizens feel included in the peace process, causing contentious estrangement with a potential to fuel a cycle of inequality that influenced armed conflict in the first place. This situation, if continued, could leave organizations bound to the will of local governments to implement their programs, as escalation threatens a boom in tourism and international companies in the country found with the agreement.
By Carolina Duque Arango
Colombian Journalist with MS in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution from Columbia University; experienced in program management, conflict analysis and research.