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For Colombia, After Peace Is When the Trouble Begins

As the country takes another step toward resolving its rebel insurgencies, its other problems are coming to the fore.

Fernando Vergara/Getty Images

The Colombian government’s self-imposed deadline for a final peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group came and went last week—along with the prospect of a celebratory photo-op for the history books with U.S. President Barack Obama, who was visiting Havana, the site of the talks, at the time, and has lent consistent support to a peace process that has gone on for three years. But this week, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos saved face by making an announcement almost as momentous: the start of formal negotiations with the National Liberation Army of Colombia (ELN), Colombia’s second-largest and second-oldest leftist insurgency.

Many details of the talks still need to be clarified, including their scope and format. For now, Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba, Chile, Brazil, and Norway have agreed to serve as guarantors for the process, and each of the five Latin American countries will play host to the delegations at various stages of a “direct and uninterrupted” negotiation. Much of the preliminary agenda will necessarily be covered by any agreement between the government and FARC that emerges from Havana. But the ELN, as President Santos pointed out in a speech he delivered from the Casa de Nariño Wednesday afternoon, is “an organization with its own history and own identity.” Securing its demobilization and disarmament will present its own set of difficulties, as well.

Despite past failures, there’s reason to believe this attempt at peace could be successful. The ELN has been aggressively pushing for a seat at the bargaining table for more than two years—through general strikes, infrastructure bombings, targeted attacks against military and police personnel, and the political ransoming of kidnap victims. The more progress that gets made in the FARC talks, the less leverage the ELN has to extract major concessions. The government, for its part, needs to remove the ELN from the picture quickly, if Santos is to have any shot of creating the “post-conflict” Colombia that he has staked his legacy on.

With approximately 1,500 armed guerrillas and 5,000 clandestine operatives spread out over select peripheral areas, the ELN is less powerful and geographically imposing than the FARC, whose forces are thought to number upwards of 7,000. But experts have expressed concerns that, in the event of a formal treaty, disaffected FARC soldiers and mid-level commanders could jump ship for the ELN, with which FARC maintains strategic and financial partnerships. Alternatively, the ELN could simply occupy the power vacuums left in former FARC territories and assume control over its former revenue streams (e.g. coca production and illegal mining).  

Amidst these worst-case scenarios, however, is the possibility that we are in fact witnessing the winding down of the longest running armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere. That would be a tremendous development for Colombia, and for the region as a whole. But it would also lay bare the rotten structural dynamics that have festered under 50 years of internal strife. For decades, Colombia’s ruling elite has gotten away with attributing all manner of institutional shortcomings and malfeasance to the scourges of communist insurrection and narco-trafficking—which, to let the government tell it, are pretty much the same thing. But now the Mexicans are the dominant players in the drug business, and the rebels are talking seriously about peace. The Colombian state may soon wind up with no one else to blame but itself.

In large part, the story of a “post-conflict” Colombia is a story about oil. Starting with the neoliberal “Opening” of the early 1990s, the oil industry has taken on an increasingly central role in the economy. As the United States ratcheted up security assistance to Colombia, under the guise of the War on Drugs, Western-educated administrators such as Juan Manuel Santos, then the minister of commerce, industry, and tourism, began implementing a series of reforms geared toward the privatization of public services and encouragement of direct foreign investment in the agro-industrial and mineral-extraction sectors.

Like the FARC, the ELN presented a significant obstacle to these plans. The ELN derives much of its finances from “taxes” levied on multinational oil operations, which it enforces with violence, particularly in the petrol-rich eastern plains, where some 170 bombings were carried out along a U.S. pipeline in 2001 alone. That same year, the Colombian government claimed to have lost at least $500 million in tax revenue due to oil industry sabotages.

When George W. Bush entered office, $104 million in funding—this time under the War on Terror—was directed toward outfitting a newly created Colombian Army brigade, trained by U.S. special forces, which operated with an express mandate to protect U.S. oil interests in the area. Then-President Alvaro Uribe Velez designated Colombia’s oil regions high-priority “Consolidation Zones” in his anti-guerrilla crusade.

The right-wing death squads that formed the vanguard of the Colombian Army’s surge into the ELN stronghold of Arauca, along the country’s largest pipeline, still pose a tremendous threat to the stated goals of “post-conflict” programming. Ostensibly, the paramilitaries demobilized in the mid-2000s. But the deeply entrenched nexus of “para-political” and economic power that backed them was never dissolved. Nor are the “criminal bands” that rose in their place devoted solely to apolitical delinquency, as the government has repeatedly insisted. In just the first two weeks of March, 29 members of the broader political left were assassinated across Colombia.

The exercise of extrajudicial repression by regional elites is a tradition old enough to be considered a structural aspect of Colombian governance. Because the central government lacks the ability, legitimacy, and will to assert itself in the far-flung enclaves of Colombia’s notoriously difficult terrain, it’s dependent on clientalist party machines to maintain stability and collect votes in those areas. This arrangement has proven durable, so long as the mermelada—marmalade, the Colombian equivalent of pork barrel spending—gets spread around. But historically, it has meant that any attempts at meaningful nationwide reform—of the kinds being hashed out in Havana—are quite literally dead on arrival once they reach the regions where they’re most needed.

But for Santos, there may be a more immediate danger than the backlash of the reactionary right. The economic model that’s been built on this system of state-sanctioned bloodletting is beginning to wobble under the weight of its own contradictions. Oil prices have plummeted since the start of the FARC peace process. What Santos once heralded as a “locomotor” of economic growth is now a sinkhole in the heart of his budget. At a time when the government is essentially committing itself to massive state-building in Colombia’s guerrilla-controlled territories, Santos is passing austerity measures to stay in the good graces of Western financial institutions. Inflation is high, his approval ratings are tanking, and Colombians are being asked to ration energy—despite living in a country that is among the world’s largest producers of oil and coal.

The Colombian armed conflict has dragged on decades longer than most of the other revolutionary struggles in Latin America, but so, too, has the political utility of the Cold War. Well into the twenty-first century, leftist subversion is masking failings that date back to colonialism—even as those same failings have in turn fueled the perpetuation of the fighting. A radical economic transformation has taken place in the Colombian countryside, alongside this spiraling violence, one that would only become more obvious were the bloodshed to suddenly evaporate.

Peace with the FARC and ELN would mark “the end of the guerrilla,” Santos said Wednesday. Then “we’ll be able to focus on making our country—through democracy—the free, normal, modern, just, and inclusive nation we can and should be.” One can only hope the Colombian government will be more prepared to meet those challenges than it has been in the past. There won’t be anyone to scapegoat if it isn’t.