Sunday, July 27, 2008

Thoughts on Colombia, the FARC, and the Possibility of Hope

I agree with the majority of Erik's points below: that the FARC hasn't been anything more than a criminal organization hiding behind a thin veil of "ideology" for decades; that things are genuinely looking better than I could have hoped for in terms of civil conflict (and its potential end) in Colombia, and this shift has indeed been far more rapid than I could have imagined; and, regardless whether the FARC disappears or not, paramilitaries can, should, and need to be brought to justice, for they have been as involved as the FARC (if not moreso) in drug production and running and the murder of innocent civilians in the name of (stop me if this sounds familiar) "combatting terrorism."

That said, I think the hope still has to be somewhat guarded. First, the FARC isn't gone yet. As I've said before, the recent setbacks have been embarassing, and the deaths of major FARC leaders (including second-in-command Raul Reyes, Ivan Rios, and Manuel Marulanda Velez) are significant. That said, that doesn't mean some charismatic leader can't emerge or come out of nowhere to give the FARC new impetus. There are reasons to believe that FARC may very well be entering its death throes, but this isn't the first time that this outcome has seemed possible.

Another issue that of course will demand attention is what happens with the cocaine production. Both the FARC and paramilitary groups are closely tied to its production and sale in Colombia. Should the FARC be eliminated, I don't see cocaine production just dropping or disappearing. The demand is still out there globally, and there will certainly be others, be they members of the paramilitary groups or just standard drug-lords with no politics other than profit, who will want to fill the FARC's void (again, if there is a void ever). The possible end of the FARC does not mean an end to cocaine production or the violence tied to the industry, and the government will really have to work hard via social and economic programs to turn cocaine producers into productive units in other, more legal areas. Given how Colombia's presidents have acted in the past, I don't see a lot of reason to be hopeful of this.

Thirdly, as Erik alluded to, there is the issue of paramilitary groups. They are as awful and violent as the FARC in many regards, indiscriminately and often contemptuously killing innocent civilians and extracting payments from international companies via protection rackets, all in the name of the "war on terror" or "drug war" or in the name of combatting "subversives." Colombia has refused to deal with this issue, especially under Uribe, in part no doubt because both the current and past governments have been in bed with the paramilitaries via "unofficial" (and sometimes official) channels. Colombia needs to tackle the paramilitary issue as much as it does FARC. I have shards of hope that, were FARC to fade away, dealing with paramilitaries would be facilitated as human right organizations could deal more directly with paramilitary violence in ways similar (albeit in different contexts) to those campaigns in Chile and Argentina. Nonetheless, such hopes are indeed just glimmers without the promise of much coming of it, particularly given the close ties of multiple politicians, administration officials, and even presidents tied to the paramilitary groups directly or indirectly. Certainly, as time goes on things could change on this front, but right now, I see no real reason to believe the politicians will stand down on this issue and let the true issue of paramilitary action at all levels, illegal and governmental, come to light.

All this is not to belittle where things are right now. As Erik correctly pointed out, this is the most hopeful we can be about Colombia for a long time. Of particular interest is how Colombian politics might play out on the ideological level if the FARC were to all but die out. Would they be as beholden to the U.S.? Would Colombians start electing more centrist and leftist leaders? Would the rightighst politicians who are popular right now really be able to maintain their popularity in a political context where the opponent on whom they base their legitimacy no longer is a threat? There's no way of knowing now, because the FARC still is around, even if diminished for the time. Still, one can't help but think that maybe, after 40+ years of conflict and 25+ years of stagnant, useless violence that has torn the country apart, things are looking better than they have for awhile.