Captura-de-pantalla-2014-07-15-a-las-13 Image credit: Voice of America

The extent of positive change will depend on how prepared Santos is to listen to the grassroots and go beyond a mere cessation of hostilities to tackle the root structural causes
As President Santos begins his second term as Colombian President and peace creeps ever closer to becoming a reality, the extent of positive change any future peace agreement will have will depend on how prepared Santos is to listen to the grassroots and go beyond a mere cessation of hostilities to tackle the root structural causes of the more than 50-year civil war.

The Colombian conflict is the world’s longest running civil war. It is a war fought between armed guerrilla groups formed in response to deep social inequality and violent political exclusion and a Colombian State protected by an Army which was demoralised in the 90s but rejuvenated by billions of dollars of US military aid. It is also a conflict that has seen the expansion and consolidation of para-state armies created by elements within state institutions and private businesses and responsible for targeting civilian activists who dare question the ruling economic or social order. The guerrillas remain strong in rural Colombia, the Colombian Army maintains the technological advantage, and paramilitaries continue to act with almost total impunity.

According to a recent government-backed study the civil war has left at least 220,000 dead. Over 80% of those killed have been civilians. A horrific figure. And even more horrific when one considers that the guerrilla groups, demonised and listed as terrorist organisations by the United States and the European Union, are together considered to be responsible for no more than 30% of the deaths. The Colombian state, a close economic and political ally on both sides of the Atlantic, is involved in over two-thirds of the killings, either directly or implicitly through its collusion with the para-state armies.

But whilst war has raged as a constant, there have also been numerous attempts at peace. In the 1980s a peace process with the largest guerrilla group, the FARC, led to the creation of a political party and the demobilisation of a not insignificant number of guerrilla fighters. But this was short lived as the state and paramilitaries combined to kill thousands of members of the party, most with no connection to the guerrillas at all, including two presidential candidates and numerous elected officials. Another attempt was made between 1999 and 2002, when a huge extension of territory was turned into a demilitarised zone to allow for talks to take place. But again the talks failed as the ongoing confrontations elsewhere in the country, and particularly the intensification of paramilitary violence, did not give space for mutual confidence to build between the negotiating parties. The talks were abandoned when the FARC hijacked a plane, forcing it to land and taking a Senator hostage.

Ten years after the dramatic collapse of the last talks, a new process was begun in 2012 and this process continues today – it is unsurprisingly dominating Colombian politics and is starting to foment ever expanding hope that an end could finally be found to the Colombian armed conflict. It is considered to be the most serious attempt ever to bring peace to Colombia.

Whilst that hope spreads however, the peace process has also created division, as is almost the rule in a country torn apart by warfare
Whilst that hope spreads however, as is almost the rule in a country torn apart by warfare, the peace process has also created division – the traditional ruling classes have gone through a vicious and very public divorce. On the one side are the so-called Uribistas, their figurehead being the ex-president Alvaro Uribe, a militarist opposed to any form of peace negotiations whose political career has moved hand in hand with paramilitary expansion and the most extreme periods of human rights abuses – he has faced repeated accusations of directly supporting paramilitary groups. In spite of this record Uribe continues to enjoy significant support from across the country. On the other side is the current government, headed by President Santos who surprised almost all analysts when, after serving as Defence Minister under Uribe and winning the 2010 election on the promise of a continuation of the former president’s policies, he repositioned himself significantly, recognising victims of state crimes and promoting a peace process with the FARC as his potential legacy. The recent elections unequivocally confirmed this divide. Santos was forced to a second round run-off against the Uribista candidate and his ruling coalition narrowly won the most seats in Congress. Alvaro Uribe returned to political office as a Senator and his newly founded party now fronts the official opposition.

Whilst Santos receives plaudits internationally for his continued commitment to the peace process, and he should indeed be encouraged to maintain that commitment, it is grassroots peace organisations that are the true torch bearers of this peace process. It is they who have been developing ideas, working in communities and pressuring the politicians for peace long before “talking peace” became mainstream. Indeed as Defence Minister, Juan Manuel Santos presided over a period characterised by the most severe atrocities ever committed by the Colombian Army whilst at the same time anybody rejecting a military solution to the armed conflict would likely be accused of collusion with terrorists – many peace organisations were treated as such.


As peace causes the traditional ruling classes to fracture, the traditionally marginalised are coming together, and the significance of this should not be underestimated.
But the commitment of the grassroots is unwavering. One of the most positive results to already come out of the current talks has been the unification on a single platform of a number of previously divided organisations, principally around the issue of peace. This new found unification was demonstrated in March with the first meeting in Bogota of the Cumbre Agraria (Agrarian Council), which grouped together thousands of grassroots organisations to put forward proposals to the Colombian government concerning the rural regions of the country where poverty, violence and the armed conflict is most intense. As peace causes the traditional ruling classes to fracture, the traditionally marginalised are coming together, and the significance of this should not be underestimated.

Unfortunately, in contradiction to the positive steps taken to initiate the peace process, Santos’ policies towards grassroots organisations have in practice offered little change from those of his predecessor. His economic policies still fail to take on-board their concerns and there continues to be a considerable lack of progress on the human rights front. Last year saw more human rights defenders killed than for any other year in the past decade, whilst members of the Santos government continue to accuse legitimate protests of being organised by the FARC, and political opponents continue to be put in prison on the basis of flimsy evidence and trumped up charges. There has been an important change in discourse from Santos, but this must be transformed into hard policies if Santos is to demonstrate that he is committed to ensuring that the peace process goes beyond a mere cessation of hostilities and actually provides the framework to promote a more socially and politically inclusive Colombia.

In confronting some of the most reactionary forces inside Colombia’s institutions, Santos has undoubtedly taken a bold and important step. To ensure that this moment of such historical importance for Colombia does not become another colossal missed opportunity, it is now essential that Santos and his second term government provide all the necessary guarantees to grassroots organisations and ensure that their views are included inside the mainstream political framework. Santos has followed their lead in initiating a peace process; he must now further distance himself from Uribe and listen to the demands and proposals coming from the grassroots. It is from there that he will find the solutions needed to address once and for all the deep lying causes behind this incessant war.