BOGOTA - Negotiators for rebel group FARC -- engaged now in historic peace talks with the Colombian government — received an interesting visit in Havana last month. During a pause in negotiations with Bogota officials in the Cuban capital, FARC loyalists met with a group of former members of the IRA.
Indeed, the veterans of Northern Ireland's Irish Republican Army would have worthwhile experiences to share with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the guerrilla "people's army" in search of a peace deal after a decades-long war with the Colombian government.
Putting emphasis on their disarmament strategy implemented in the early 2000s, which eventually led to the success of the Northern Irish peace process, IRA members shared their experience.
Of course, the transition to a post-conflict Northern Ireland was by no means easy. In his paper The IRA disarmament process in Northern Ireland: lessons for Colombia, Vicença Fisas, director of the School for the Culture of Peace at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, warns that the Good Friday Agreement — signed in 1998 and marking the official start of the Irish peace process — did not explain in detail how to proceed with regard to disarmament. Instead, the agreement limited itself to expressing the advisability of disarmament, and inviting the parties to collaborate with the International Independent Committee for Disarmament (IICD).
There was much skepticism, Fisas recounts, even though it was clear that resolving the problems surrounding disarmament was essential to the negotiations. The IICD was led by Canadian General Jon de Chastelain, who was responsible for overseeing the gradual disarmament process and the destruction of collected weapons. In total, the IICD supervised four IRA disarmament acts between October 2001 and September 2005.
Guerillas weigh in
But it is not just former IRA members who have been in discussions with the FARC negotiators. There has also been talk about the continued presence of former Central-American guerrillas — from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador, now one of the country’s two main political parties following the 1992 peace process, and from the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua, also now a main political party — as well as others from South Africa.
To advance discussions about demobilization and disarmament, the FARC has also made enquiries about another sensitive topic: pardons and reparations to victims. “The simple fact that we are discussing these topics already enables us to move negotiations forward and, for this reason, there are some who dare to say that the final agreement could be very close,” says a source close to the negotiating process.
Regarding the thorny issue of disarmament, one proposal purportedly gaining favor is the possibility of surrendering weapons to the custody of an international or humanitarian organization. The FARC may have warmed to this idea after their meeting with the IRA, particularly if they have taken into account the fact that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has signalled that he won't allow the group to enter politics while they are still armed. The government has viewed very positively the fact that the guerrilla group is taking an interest in successful peace processes from around the world.
The FARC aims to re-enter politics
Whatever route the negotiations may take, everything is pointing toward a single overarching objective: establishing political participation. This would be the logical next step following disarmament and the signing of an agreement to end the conflict. And the government’s recent decision to return legal status to the Patriotic Union (UP), the FARC's political wing, is intricately linked to what is happening in Havana. In fact, according to sources consulted by El Espectador, the FARC has apparently started to solidify plans to fully re-enter the political arena, focusing on the local and regional elections in 2015.
This is why many people have not been surprised that the discussion about peasant reserve zones — one of the points still waiting to be discussed, now that the first topic on the agenda, namely agricultural policy, has been closed — has migrated from Cuba to Catatumbo in the blink of an eye, becoming one of the most important issues for protest leaders in that region. Next week Catatumbo protestors will be joined by more striking miners, and it is believed that other agricultural sectors will also go on strike. These sectors are key for the guerrillas, who are trying to establish new topics for discussion to help guide their position at the negotiating table in Havana.
The aim is for these protests to mark the beginning of the FARC’s agenda for the elections to Congress next year — if negotiations reach a final agreement in time — or the local and regional elections in 2015. That said, the FARC must convince the other side to allow different conditions for its political wing, given that the law currently requires any movement or party to collect almost 450,000 votes in order to maintain its legal status. This figure is almost certainly unattainable for the FARC, but there is talk of creating a “special peace circumscription” that would aim to guarantee its political survival at a national level.
Regardless of how the situation is resolved, both the government and the FARC are well aware that the decision from the Council of State (which advises the Colombia government on administrative matters) to legalize UP has enabled the talks in Cuba to take several gigantic steps forward. And although nobody will admit it, discussions about the international “blind eye” — which needs to be turned to crimes against humanity, drug trafficking and money laundering for the sake of the peace process — have been underway for a little while.
U.S. looks to be on board
Peace is the ultimate goal, and it is believed that the United States would be willing to respect the compromises made to end the conflict in Colombia. For the time being, it is understood that the negotiations in Havana must cover many points and pass through many sets of hands, but the FARC wants to enter politics, and legally.
Speaking to El Espectador from Havana, leader of the FARC Jorge Torres Victoria -- better known by his alias Pablo Catatumbo -- declined to comment on any progress that may have been made on the topics of demobilization, disarmament or legal immunity for the guerrilla leaders. “Those issues will be discussed in depth in the future,” he says. “What we have said is that we will talk about them very seriously -- but when the moment to do so arrives, according to the timetable established for the talks. For now, those topics aren’t on the table.”
But the FARC negotiator did mention the current crisis caused by the peasant strikes in Catatumbo in the north of Colombia: “We are concerned by the way the government has handled the protests, because it openly contradicts the message about laying down our weapons in order to defend our ideas in the public space. But when the peasants protest, they are stigmatized and repressed.”