Colombia: will it stay peaceful?

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Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos has started to talk with FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and other rebel groups. Many people are surprised by this because the president (who was the defence minister before) said he would continue to be strong against the rebels, like the president before him, Alvaro Uribe.

Uribe is still popular and he is saying Santos is wrong. No-one knows if Santos has support from most of the public in trying to end the conflict. All Colombian families have suffered greatly. Ten years ago, they had peace talks, but they were not very successful. The peace talks helped FARC grow and made the government look stupid. So we can understand why Santos is trying to make people trust him more by not agreeing to a ceasefire (no shooting) with FARC. But this is shocking to people who want to end all the killings as soon as possible.


Juan Manuel Santos: from hawk to dove? Javier Casella/Colombia's Presidential Office/Handout/Reuters

Santos made an announcement about the talks in August, but he started the talks soon after he came to power. Cuba and Norway support these talks. The formal negotiations will begin in Havana on Thursday 15 November. Suddenly, we see his first two years in power differently. Even before he became president, Santos paid for radio advertisements that praised people who defend human rights (Uribe said these people were “friends of terrorists”). In Santos’ second year, he talked a lot about how bad the great inequality in Colombia is. Last summer, when indigenous groups with no weapons made the government soldiers leave their land in Cauca, people said Santos was weak. But now it looks like part of a long-term plan to prepare for peace.

What will happen? It is impossible to know what FARC wants. They are a secretive organisation. Many years ago, they had good leftwing reasons for fighting. But now their ideas are confused by decades of war and working with the cocaine trade. FARC will try to get changes in politics and guarantees for any of their members who want to leave and become normal citizens (or even enter politics). Santos talks about not wanting a class system, but he is trying to get a lot of foreign investment for Colombia and he has failed to change the unfair ownership of land. So there will be problems.

And it will not be enough to end the violence in Colombia simply by breaking up the guerrilla forces. The cocaine trade will still be the most powerful threat to security. Investments in mining and agriculture will still mean that there will be violence against rural groups. And it is possible that crime will increase after such a conflict.

But people feel optimistic in the country. Colombia has many problems and a lot of poverty, but maybe it can now enter the modern, democratic world. In this new world, revolutionaries don’t kidnap people, they try to get votes instead.

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