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Calm in Colombia
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 15 - 02 - 2001

By Hisham El-Naggar
Much of Colombia reacted with relief when President Andrés Pastrana and guerrilla leader Pedro Marin, better known as Manuel Marulanda or Tirofijo ("sure shot"), emerged from two days of talks to announce that they had agreed to resume peace negotiations. The agreement is a personal triumph for Pastrana, who succeeded in convincing Tirofijo, leader of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) guerrilla movement, that the country desperately needs a respite from the violence, extortion and kidnappings which have made life miserable for the average Colombian.
While there is no guarantee that the resuscitated negotiations will bear fruit anytime soon, the pressure is now great on both parties to make an effort to restore peace and discourage "paramilitarism" -- a term referring to the guerrillas' armed operations as well as those of a rightist, anti-insurgent militia. While this militia was not represented in the negotiations, the assumption is that peace between the guerrillas and the government would eliminate its raison d'être, casting them as villains and worse if they persist in acting outside the law.
That the agreement is a step toward peace is made evident by its 12 points, which provide the outline for a definitive peace pact. Among the points specifically mentioned is the possibility of eradicating coca cultivation. In return, the guerrillas insist that a social development plan be put in place in areas where people's livelihoods would be affected.
Other points include the establishment of a committee to work on the immediate release of jailed guerrillas who are ill, another to study "factors which affect progress on peace negotiations", and yet another to monitor "distension zones". These refer to the 42,000 sq kms which the government had previously agreed to turn over to the guerrillas, on the understanding that they would not be used to commit "excesses".
This last point is undoubtedly the touchiest, and here the FARC made meaningful concessions. Having refused over the past three months to allow any international supervision of the zone they controlled, the FARC finally agreed to allow monitoring. Representatives of the various countries involved in the supervision will also be invited to join the negotiations on March 8.
The stage is thus set for a government agreement with the FARC very similar to the one which it reached with the National Liberation Army (ELN), a smaller guerrilla group. While the ELN is not as large as the FARC -- it has about 4,000 men to the FARC's 20,000 -- it has carried out spectacular operations, including hostage-taking and airline-hijacking. The government has ceded some 3,500 sq kms to the ELN and a detailed agreement was signed on January 15.
Is peace finally welcome in war-weary Colombia? That is certainly the dearest wish of most Colombians, who are fed up with the ongoing violence and intimidation. To be realistic, though, the road still to be covered is a long one. For one thing, the agreement with the ELN is short-term, only nine months, while that with the FARC is no more than a promise to keep talking.
In addition, the inhabitants of areas ceded to the guerrilla groups are not altogether pleased at the thought of being used as a "laboratory for peace", which exposes them to attacks and amounts, in effect, to abandoning them to their fate for the time being. Hence the importance of outside monitoring of guerrilla-held zones.
Most factions in Colombia -- politicians, businessmen, trade unions and the Catholic Church -- reacted positively to the pact with the FARC, as they had reacted to that with the ELN. At the same time, some peace activists noted with dismay that the guerrillas have yet to agree to halt kidnappings, which inspire terror among innocent citizens and are a major source of financing paramilitary operations that elude monitoring, national or international.
Overall, however, Colombians appear inclined to treat the agreement as cause for celebration. The real "losers" appear to be the ultra-right-wing, self-appointed anti-insurgency groups, who carry out their share of violent acts in the name of the struggle to curb insurgency.
As such, the agreement's widespread support is itself an achievement. The rightist hit squads appear to be isolated. As for foreign countries eager to restore peace, there is no mistaking where their sympathies lie. The group of "Friends of Colombia" (Cuba, France, Mexico, Norway and Spain) all but mediated the pact with the ELN, and appear poised to play the role of international supervisors in territories controlled by both guerrilla groups.
Meanwhile, the agreement with FARC can boast a by-no-means insignificant international supporter: George W Bush strongly endorsed President Pastrana's peace efforts. The question is thus posed: Will the rightist militia try to be more anti-communist than the United States?
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