Colombia’s Historic Moment

    • On 11 June 2008, in a press release titled Chávez’s Blockbuster Proposal: Finally the right message for peace, COHA praised Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s statements calling for an end to Colombia’s civil conflict. In the release, COHA urged that thought be given to the major role that Chávez, a leader with significant resources at his disposal, could play in such a scenario. Today, 12 June 2008, COHA appeals to Chávez and all his regional colleagues to take this call for peace one step further, arguing that the situation is ripe for a negotiated settlement and that Chavez’s strong words should be translated into an ambitious peace plan.

Colombia could be facing a historic moment. Under Conservative President Uribe’s wavering guidance, the country is approaching a negative stalemate, the very same scenario which El Salvador fell into just before it experienced the successful negotiation that ended its bitter civil conflict. That struggle accounted for the loss of close to 100,000 lives, including brutal massacres and human rights violations by that country’s armed forces. The United Nations Mission to El Salvador (ONUSAL) was successful at the time not because of the inherent qualities of its peace plan but because of the precise historical moment in which it was launched. The fall of the Soviet Union meant the end of the financial and ideological support upon which the country’s leftist guerrilla group, the FMLN, depended so heavily. It also signified a shift in US foreign policy towards El Salvador. At the height of the conflict, El Salvador was yet another stage on which one of the Cold War dramas was being played out. But with the beginning of the peace talks, it suddenly became an uninteresting skirmish on the periphery of US consciousness. Following a string of very public human rights abuses, including the murder of a number of priests at San Salvador’s Jesuit university in 1989, the US congress voted to cut military aid to El Salvador by half. This left both the FMLN and the Salvadoran Army unable to mount serious military offensives. At that point, the war was, for all intents and purposes, at a stand still.

Colombia is facing a strikingly similar set of circumstances. The dramatic change in Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s perception of the FARC means that Colombia’s leftist guerrilla group has lost its most important ideological ally. If the captured “FARC files” do, in fact, provide a truthful portrayal of the operational support conveyed to the leftist guerrillas by Chávez in recent months, the exposure of such compromising actions most certainly means, at the very least, the end of what could have been a significant amount of Caracas’ funding for the FARC. Furthermore, while the Bush-Uribe partnership and several billions of dollars in US military aid have resulted in significant military successes for the Colombian armed forces against the guerrilla group, the upcoming presidential elections in both countries could signify a considerable change in the status-quo. The US Congress’ Democratic majority is already somewhat leery of approving military funding for the Uribe administration with its questionable human rights record, particularly when it comes to the ritualized murder of trade union leaders. Congress may be even more reticent to continue funneling aid to the country upon the departure of President Bush from the White House. While the Colombian government may see a drop in US military funding, the FARC will almost certainly continue to profit from its involvement in narcotrafficking. The prospect of a guerrilla army whose funding is relatively stable could provide Bogotá with a stimulus for negotiations that take place sooner rather than later.

Chávez: Protagonist of Peace
As COHA wrote in its 11 June press memorandum, the moment is ripe for a profound gesture that would facilitate a comprehensive Colombian-FARC peace process. Hugo Chávez is uniquely placed to make this gesture. His ideological intimacy with the guerrillas will lend credibility to a process that peace negotiations led by Uribe might otherwise lack. This, in addition to the security that Chávez could provide the guerrillas based on his significant oil wealth, would help to lessen any chances of a repeat of the Unión Patriotica massacre, in which nearly 3,000 demobilized members of the political wing of the FARC were murdered during the 1980s.

Chávez can prove that his recent statement on the diminished relevance of the FARC’s guerrilla war was more than just a publicity stunt on his part (an accusation which Washington is likely to make) by committing a portion of his country’s resources to a Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program. A DDR program, the best and most comprehensive way for a post-conflict country to transition successfully to sustainable peace, would involve immense complexities, including daring to believe that the unthinkable could be achieved. Such a program might begin by an offer to house the entire guerrilla force in newly established barracks scattered across under-populated areas of his country. The reasons for the geographical distance between the FARC and their long favored jungle hideouts are three fold and build on lessons learned during the catastrophic failure of Colombian President Pastrana’s zona de despeje. First, Venezuelan-located FARC camp sites would serve as a way to prevent the demobilizing guerrilla fighters from becoming easy targets for political assassination. Second, it would remove the FARC’s home field advantage and create transparency that would insure that the guerrilla army does not preach negotiation and go through the motions of demobilization all the while continuing to strengthen their military posture. Finally, it would create a physical barrier between the former combatants and cocaine production labs, which, in recent years, have been among the main sources of the guerrilla army’s funding. This would allow Colombian forces the space and time to dismantle the labs and narcotrafficking connections established in FARC strongholds.

The physical housing of the guerrillas would comprise just one component of a larger, more comprehensive process. Following the United Nation’s Integrated DDR Standards, issued in 2005, Chávez would be called upon to provide funding for the necessary resources to initiate the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs. Responsible arms management, processing of former military units and their weapons, post-conflict psychological care, and vocational training programs are all essential elements of a successful DDR and could be readily subsidized by a loan or outright grant to be made by the Venezuelan President. International implementation and observation of these programs would forestall any accusations that the guerrillas are receiving a free ride from a regime that may have previously helped to sponsor the violence perpetrated by the FARC.

Meanwhile, the Uribe administration would have the task of creating long-term job opportunities for former FARC members who express a desire to society. Upon completion of the DDR program in Venezuela, small groups of ex-combatants might return to cities across Colombia to fill job vacancies or be granted land provided by the Colombian government. The gradual process of reintegration would prevent the influx of impoverished, unskilled former soldiers into civilian life that has undermined peace processes in the past. This type of reintegration would also allow communities to form localized truth and reconciliation committees in order to confront the effects of a war which has led to the displacement of more than three million people since 2002 alone and has negatively affected the life of every Colombian.

President Chávez has a unique opportunity to make his mark on history. If he could bring about the peaceful demobilization and resettlement of the FARC, he would surpass all others in demonstrating regional solidarity and would provide a significant boost to his hemisphere’s prestige. Chávez, at least, will have the chance to demonstrate that he is more than just an opportunist with sharp political instincts; this is could be an occasion in which he can prove that he is a world class statesman capable of conceptualizing and initiating a humanitarian project of soaring dimensions. The support and participation of President Uribe, President Bush, and the international community will be crucial to the success of this undertaking if for no other reason than that they can aid in mobilizing the political will and the collective resources to make the initiative a success. If each is fully participative, these leaders would be no less worthy of praise than Chávez.

It is no secret that President Uribe has few friends in Latin America. Constructively throwing himself into this demobilization and reintegration process will elevate his reputation to much higher grounds. The Colombian conflict, the hemisphere’s oldest guerrilla war, is responsible for the world’s highest internal displacement, hundreds of thousands of deaths, and an institutionalized culture of violence. It can be resolved, however, if President Hugo Chávez, and all his regional colleagues, seize this historic moment in time.