Colombia-Venezuela Relations: What Are the Prospects?
Colombia and Venezuela have a history of rocky relations characterized by short bursts of improvement and deterioration.
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After decades of violence, peace remains a coveted yet elusive goal in Colombia. Indeed, the August announcement by President Juan Manuel Santos confirming talks in Oslo and Havana with the country’s largest and oldest insurgency – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – is the latest installment in a long history of negotiations with rebels. “Cautious optimism” has become the common reaction to the news among foreign and domestic observers; a testament to both an intense wish to end the fifty year-old conflict and to the hard-learned lessons of previous efforts to disband armed groups. These experiences illustrate the paradox now confronting President Santos: if he tries to bring the conflict to an end too quickly – by granting concessions to the FARC – his political standing risks becoming more precarious.
Antonio Navarro Wolf, a former M19 rebel, successfully transitioned into Colombian political life twenty years ago and went on to become an accomplished politician on the national scene. As he wisely points out, the structural problems fueling the FARC conflict – poverty, illicit sources of revenue, inequality, and social exclusion – will take generations to solve. And even if these talks are fruitful, violence is bound to continue. Still, Navarro argues that resolving the armed political struggle will enable the country to focus on the solutions to these and other pressing issues. Though the challenges are formidable, demobilizing the FARC has never appeared more within reach.
A long road
This will be the fourth time the government has sat across the table from the FARC, a legacy extending to the 1980s and encompassing a shifting landscape of ideology, criminality and state capacity.
The last attempt at peace took place under President Andrés Pastrana between 1998 and 2002. Then, the FARC were an estimated 18,000 strong while nearly half the country lacked a government security presence. Chaos reigned. In 1999, the Defense Ministry reported nearly 2,000 terrorist acts and over 3,000 kidnappings in addition to a homicide rate exceeding 60 per 100,000. The government, notably on the defensive, lacked the bargaining power to push an agreement and the talks failed.
The turnaround ushered in by Pastrana’s successor, President Álvaro Uribe (2002-10), was dramatic. Backed by several billion dollars in US assistance, aggressive military action resulted in diminished rebel capabilities. Such an effort was accompanied by measures to strengthen state authority and capacity. Between 2002 and 2009, kidnappings declined to just 200 a year, homicides were halved, and the FARC were reduced to roughly 9,000 while many of their leaders were captured or killed.
Uribe’s efforts to scale down crime also involved negotiating with another armed group, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). This response to leftist guerrillas had exacerbated already rampant violence and was heavily involved in the drug trade. In 2002, the AUC began talks to demobilize, and over the course of several years, over 31,000 paramilitaries turned over their weapons. While reducing violence, however, less than 10 percent of these individuals have since been processed by the 2005 Peace and Justice Law intended to reincorporate paramilitaries into civilian life, deliver justice to its leaders, and provide restitution for victims. The inadequacies of this process have allowed many paramilitaries to quickly return to criminal activities under the guise of bandas criminales (las bacrim).
In 2010, Uribe passed his mantle to his defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, a key player in the president’s security team. Santos, sensing favorable conditions for another attempt at peace with the FARC immediately upon taking office, moved to make it a reality. Ending the hemisphere’s oldest internal conflict is an irresistible legacy for any Colombian president – and surely one Santos did not want to pass up. There is now little doubt that these talks will largely determine President Santos’ prospects for reelection in 2014 and represent an enormous gamble.
President Uribe, meanwhile, has unleashed a torrent of criticism against the process. Ironically, the former president played a role in making these negotiations possible, notably in the country’s improved security. In contrast to a dozen years ago, the FARC believe victory impossible and should be more amenable to compromise. Also important is the favorable political environment President Santos inherited from his predecessor. Indeed, Santos’ coalition controlled over 90 percent of congress when he assumed office and he enjoyed strong public support for two long years.
One could reasonably interpret much of the president’s foreign and domestic agenda to date as an effort to build groundwork for peace. Taking advantage of his political capital, the president pursued this basis for negotiations in two important ways. First, Santos’ coalition passed several laws that establish the government’s bargaining position, including a transitional justice framework and social policies providing restitution to the conflict’s many victims. Second, improved relations with Colombia’s South American neighbors– notably Venezuela – will also be a factor in determining the process’s conclusion.
Of the laws Santos pushed through congress, the most relevant is the Ley de Orden Público. Adapting a framework passed prior to the Pastrana talks, the legislature extended the law in 2010 with several changes to guard against past mistakes. The legislation allows the president to authorize FARC negotiators to “obtener soluciones al conflicto armado… el cese de hostilidades o su disminución, la reincorporación a la vida civil de estos grupos o lograr su sometimiento a la ley.” Like the earlier version, this measure, dubbed the “columna vertebral para la paz” by the leading newsweekly Semana, permits the government to negotiate by suspending arrest warrants for guerrilla representatives.
Yet the law contains key differences. A principal reason for the failure of the Pastrana talks was the demilitarization of a zone the size of Switzerland that allowed the FARC to regroup without fear of incursion — a generous gesture, but one that removed any incentive for the rebels to negotiate in good faith. Learning from this mistake, the administration pressured congress to explicitly outlaw demilitarized areas. Another development is a stipulation that negotiations must take place outside of Colombia, aiding to their integrity by cutting down on leaks. By codifying these elements before the exploratory talks began, Santos made it more difficult for the FARC to press demands likely to derail the process.
Last summer, the Ley de Víctimas y de Restitución de Tierras set legal precedent by requiring special compensatory measures for those affected by the armed conflict. The law’s pillar is a better system for the restitution of lands lost to forced displacements since 1991. Improvement in this regard is critical. Human Rights Watch reports that violence over the past 30 years has displaced over 3.7 million Colombians vacating an area three times the size of El Salvador.
Previous efforts to correct this tragedy have produced disappointing outcomes. The website Verdad Abierta reports that, of the 2,490 paramilitaries sentenced under the auspices of Uribe’s Justicia y Paz framework, only 80 have contributed to restitutions to a total of 130 billion Colombian pesos. This amounts to a meager quotient of a little over one euro for each of the 380,000 victims Verdad Abierta estimates to have been affected by paramilitary activity.
Groups such as Human Rights Watch have hailed the law as a “historic” opportunity for an enduring resolution to the conflict by shifting the burden of proof to favor victims and implementing stronger institutional support to return land and provide other forms of restitution.
A conciliatory foreign policy
Differentiating himself from his predecessor, President Santos began his term with a rapprochement with the region’s prominent leftist leaders. The move is sure to have implications given Venezuela’s participation in the negotiations. Alongside Cuba – home to the second round of talks – the Chávez administration is the hemisphere’s most prominent leftist government. The blessing of Havana and Caracas provides legitimacy to negotiations with a group unmistakably Marxist in its origins. In this sense, including Hugo Chávez at the table seems prudent.
Yet the Venezuelan government’s motives bear scrutiny. The FARC maintain camps in Venezuela where important leaders conduct operations. Furthermore, the relationship between the guerrillas and the Chávez administration has been credibly established as well as the fact that high-ranking officials in the Venezuelan government benefit from the drug trade. Venezuela’s support will be critical for drawing the conflict to a close, though it remains to be seen if Chávez will take on powerful criminal interests within its own borders.
President Santos has also thawed relations with other South American neighbors, notably Ecuador, and has deepened ties with Brazil. This regional support will not only be important during negotiations, but will also be necessary for implementing regional responses to the transnational issues such as drug trafficking and money laundering that fuel organized crime.
Past lessons for future challenges
It bodes well that representatives agreed upon a limited agenda during exploratory talks, a demonstration of resolve on both sides. Nevertheless, the five items up for discussion – ending the conflict, rural development, the FARC’s political participation, drug trafficking, and victims’ rights – are complex and wide-ranging. Furthermore, any comprehensive solution that emerges from these negotiations will lack the direct input of other players. Will victims, for instance, accept a restitution agreement negotiated by the government and guerrillas, both accused of committing serious human rights abuses?
History tells us that perhaps the most difficult challenge ahead will be negotiating an end to the conflict while illicit sources of revenue – such as coca and extortion – remain profitable. The AUC disbandment highlights this problem. While over 31,000 paras officially demobilized, new groups quickly emerged composed largely of former paramilitary soldiers and commanders. Dubbed “las bacrim,” these gangs engage in illegal activities, killing and abusing citizens much like the groups from which they sprung. While the government denies that these “new” criminals are second generation paramilitaries, one hopes they have still learned from this lesson. Authorities must take steps to ascertain whether those who demobilize are, in fact, who they say they are – not civilians bribed to play the part – and that all the forces in question truly disband.
In 2010, Human Rights Watch indicated another aspect overlooked by the process: the opportunity to “thoroughly question demobilizing paramilitaries about their knowledge of the groups’ assets, contacts, and criminal operations, to investigate the groups’ criminal networks and sources of support, and to take them apart.” Accurate depositions will be a crucial aid in the current context given doubts surrounding the control of the FARC’s central command. IHS Jane’s reported in October 2012 that the Colombian government claims only 15 of the FARC’s 67 fronts are still accountable to its Secretariat. While the report notes these figures likely underestimate the Secretariat’s authority, the point remains that these forces may easily be absorbed by existing criminal enterprises.
Measures ensuring that rebels do not morph into new groups are central to sustainable reductions in violence. Nevertheless, drops in homicides and massacres in demobilized areas indicate that the demobilization process during the 2000s contributed to declining levels of criminality. This implies potential for more effective integration efforts if seen through to their end.
Past experience also highlights the challenge of protecting the FARC in pursuing their goal of political participation. In the 1980s, the FARC created the Unión Patriótica (UP), a party dedicated to leftist goals such as land reform and union rights. Though it performed reasonably well electorally, the UP suffered the murder of thousands of its members before falling apart. The FARC will likely seek assurances that a similar episode is not repeated.
In contrast to thirty years ago, however, the FARC enjoys scant support – Semana reports that nearly 75% of the public opposes their participation in politics. It remains an open question how the government will maintain support for the process while accommodating the guerrillas’ demands for representation. This constitutes yet another of the many challenges inherent in such a complex process.
¿Cómo complacer a todos?
While Colombians are overwhelmingly supportive of peace – a poll by Ipsos Franco from September 2012 found almost an 80% approval rate of the decision to negotiate – comparably high margins disapprove of pardoning the FARC.
But a peace agreement will almost certainly contain some degree of amnesty. In June 2012, congress passed a transitional justice framework granting the use of alternative sentencing for participants of the armed conflict. The move has produced the unlikely allies of hardline Uribe supporters and human rights defenders. Both criticize the legislation as a free pass for the serious crimes committed by the FARC. Defending the law in a recent interview, Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre frankly stated that it is possible that not a single guerrilla will spend time behind bars under the new marco, asserting “No nos digamos mentiras, hablemos francamente: el nuevo marco para la paz es una amnistía condicionada incluso para graves violaciones a los derechos humanos.” That will certainly be a hard pill for many Colombians to swallow.
Santos faces a dilemma. Not only will he need to reach an agreement with the insurgents – he must appease a public with little appetite for concessions. Moreover, perceptions of insecurity have dealt a blow to the president’s popularity. In June, Gallup reported that 30% more respondents believed the country’s security was worsening in comparison to when Santos took office, rising from roughly 35% to 65% over his mandate. Given this trend, the public’s patience with negotiations will likely run out quickly if they feel their safety is being compromised by leniency towards the FARC.
Politicians will only collaborate with Santos as long as they consider it electorally advantageous. Should security conditions worsen or the talks falter, Santos’ capacity for pushing further legislation will diminish considerably. This would spell trouble for negotiations, as additional laws are needed to continue current demobilization efforts and to outline specifically how the FARC will be tried and sentenced.
Congress is also considering a measure to ensure that members of the armed forces are, barring extreme cases, tried by military rather than civilian tribunals for abuses. This comes amid worries inside the armed forces that – at the demand of victim advocacy groups – soldiers be held accountable for abuses alongside guerrillas. Monitoring the military will be critical, as IHS Jane’s noted in October 2012, given the possibility of radical factions within the army purposefully thwarting the peace process. As a former defense minister, however, President Santos is aware of such concerns and is taking steps to address them.
As evinced by his negotiation team, the president has made a concerted effort to include key interest groups in this process. The inclusion of Oscar Naranjo, the highly celebrated chief of police under Uribe, will also do much to assuage worries among the law enforcement and the public. Jorge Mora Rangel will represent the military hardline, and the private sector will welcome the participation of Luis Carlos Villegas, president of the National Association of Industrialists. Heading negotiations will be former vice-president Humberto de la Calle Lombana (1994-97), a well-known politician and legal expert. The talks’ outcome will hinge not only on the skill of the negotiators but on continued support for the process at home, something Santos certainly had in mind when composing the team to send to Oslo.
What happens over the coming months could quickly immortalize the president or negatively affect his standing. Many exogenous factors will shape the success of the talks, though the determination and patience of the Colombian people is still crucial. Ultimately, Navarro is right; these talks should not be expected to eradicate violence, drugs, or inequality. Yet, they will, hopefully, create favorable conditions to vigorously confront those issues. And that in itself is no small accomplishment.
Colombia and Venezuela have a history of rocky relations characterized by short bursts of improvement and deterioration.
On August 7, an important chapter in Colombian-Venezuelan relations that has coincided with the presidencies of Alvaro Uribe and Hugo Chavez will come to an end. These last eight years have been a rollercoaster, with moments of great tension but also occasional pragmatism.
With no time to lose, Colombia’s newly appointed Director of National Planning has gotten to work on an ambitious agenda.