New Government Takes Bold First Steps in Program for "Total Peace"

– Margaret Villamizar –

Colombia's new Historic Pact coalition government, which president Gustavo Petro refers to as the government of change, has moved quickly to begin creating the conditions it hopes will allow for peace to finally prevail for a people who have lived through more than 70 years of social and armed conflict and over 200 years of uninterrupted oligarchic rule. Some of the actions the new government has taken during its first weeks in office are summarized below. 

Peace Agreement to Be Fully Implemented

A central pillar of the program Petro and Vice President Francia Márquez were elected to fulfil was their commitment to fully implement the comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Colombian state and the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Signed six years ago, former president Iván Duque and his government implemented very little of the Agreement, working instead to sabotage peace.

Resumption of Talks with ELN, Amends Made to Cuba

Delegation from Colombia travels to Havana, Cuba, August 12, 2022, to discuss reopening of
negotiations with the ELN.

Petro and Márquez also committed to resuming negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN) which Duque unilaterally called off in 2019. During the new government's first week in office, a delegation led by Foreign Minister Alvaro Leyva travelled to Havana to meet with Cuban government officials and ELN's negotiators to explore reopening negotiations between the Colombian government and the ELN. After shutting down the previous talks which Cuba had been hosting, Duque had arrest warrants issued for the ELN negotiating team, labelling them "terrorists," and requested they be extradited to Colombia. Cuba, in strict compliance with its obligations as host and guarantor of the talks, refused to extradite the ten-member team which would have violated not only the agreed protocols in the event of a breakdown in negotiations but international law.

Cuba's legitimate stand was quickly seized upon by the Trump administration and used as a pretext to place Cuba on the spurious U.S. “list of state sponsors of terrorism,” enabling it to pile even more restrictions and hardships on the Cuban people on top of those due to the blockade. Acknowledging Colombia had amends to make for the harm done by the former government acting as a tool of the U.S. war against Cuba, Minister Leyva made a point of stating on behalf of the Colombian government that it rejected Cuba's inclusion on the U.S. "sponsors of terrorism” list. He thanked Cuba for firmly sticking to its principles despite the extortion and damages it entailed. 

Shortly after this, President Petro announced that his government was ready to reopen negotiations with the ELN and that he had suspended the arrest orders and extradition requests for its negotiators who were now free to return to Colombia to meet with their organization. At the same time he reiterated his invitation to other armed groups operating outside the law to negotiate their possible demobilization and disarmament, which many have expressed a willingness to do. Some have indicated that they are also prepared to go along with Petro's proposal of a multilateral cessation of hostilities to create conditions for talks to commence.

Restoration of Diplomatic and Trade Relations with Venezuela

Left: Colombian President Gustavo Petro greets Venezuelan ambassador; right: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro greets Colombian ambassador.

Another step that was swiftly taken by the new government was to pursue the full restoration of diplomatic and commercial relations with Venezuela, shut down definitively in 2019 as a result of repeated attempts by Duque, in connivance with his U.S. masters and violent sections of the Venezuelan opposition, to organize destabilization operations of all kinds in Venezuela aimed at overthrowing the government of President Nicolás Maduro.  Today the governments of these historically linked sister countries have expressed a commitment to work together for the good of both countries and to benefit the people living on both sides of their 2,200-kilometre shared border. To that end they wasted no time in exchanging ambassadors and organizing a succession of ministerial-level and other working meetings that brought together officials, business and cultural groups and others from both countries. 

On September 13 President Gustavo Petro formally requested that Venezuela serve as a guarantor along with Cuba and Norway for peace negotiations his government will resume with the ELN, which Nicolas Maduro accepted. Then on September 26 the border was officially reopened for commercial and other vehicular traffic. It was marked with a joint ceremony and celebrations on the Simon Bolivar International Bridge as the first truckload of goods was driven from San Antonio on the Venezuelan side to Cúcuta on the Colombian side, and vice versa. 

Leadership Shakeup, New Doctrine for Police and Military

A bold action Petro took within days of assuming the presidency was to replace the top leadership in the country's police and military forces, both of which fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defence. Many younger and lower-ranking officers were promoted to leading positions, resulting in the retirement of 28 generals and other high-ranking officers from the military and 26 from the police. A few reportedly decided to leave of their own accord but most were forced out, in particular any that Petro and his defence minister determined were implicated in human rights violations, abuse of power or corrupt acts.

Petro has called on members of the country's outsized forces of repression with a decades-long history of prosecuting a dirty internal war against the Colombian people to "be part of the profound transformations demanded by Colombians." He told them to prepare to become "an army of peace." Petro also announced that all police and military are from now on to be guided by a "human security" doctrine instead of the U.S.-inspired "national security" doctrine. In effect since the end of World War II, it places heavy emphasis on counterinsurgency and what Petro called "the false belief that there is an internal enemy in Colombia." The new doctrine calls for the military and police to engage in the care and protection of people in terms of preventing the massacres and targeted killing of social leaders and demobilized guerrillas who signed the Peace Agreement.

As of September 11, 126 social leaders and 34 demobilized FARC members were reported to have been assassinated so far in 2022 and 77 massacres registered (three or more people murdered in one killing event) according to the non-governmental organization INDEPAZ. The numbers, which increase almost on a daily basis, are significantly higher than for the last two years. Since the signing of the Peace Agreement in 2016, 340 of its signatories have been assassinated, most with impunity. Petro has told the military and police that security must no longer be measured by their count of “kills” or casualties, but by a decrease in lives lost and the betterment of people's living conditions.

Related to this, the minister of defence has ordered the suspension of aerial bombardments in areas where minors or civilians could be present. According to the president of the Colombian Senate's Peace Commission, Senator Ivan Cepeda, during Ivan Duque's government (2018-2022) there were 30 bombings in which 29 minors were killed who were not part of the "illegal structures" that were targeted.

Emergency Protection Plan for Social Leaders, Former Guerrillas

Another initiative undertaken by the government is an emergency plan aimed at protecting the lives of social leaders, rights defenders and former members of the FARC guerrilla organization through setting up what are called Unified Command Posts for Life in 65 communities around the country. The posts, which have representation from both civilian and military institutions from the national to the local level, and from the local communities, are to emphasize prevention, including through taking immediate action whenever early warnings are issued by the Ombudsman's Office.

Peace as Official Policy of the State

New government launches the first Unified Command Post for Life in the Cauca region, August 20, 2022. The initiative is to protect the people facing violence across the country, especially social leaders, human rights activists, environmentalists and former FARC fighters.

Reflecting President Gustavo Petro's stated aspiration to resolve all internal conflicts in the country of both a political-military and straight criminal-mercenary nature in order to achieve lasting or "total peace," a bill titled "The State Policy of Peace" was introduced in the National Congress on August 30. The policy would be applicable to all branches of government. It would also make any peace agreements negotiated by a government binding on successor governments so they cannot decide to "tear them to shreds" or refuse to implement them, as Duque made the mission of his government with respect to the agreement signed with the FARC by his predecessor Juan Manuel Santos. 

Among other things the legislation calls for doing away with compulsory military service for youth, offering them the alternative of performing a year of paid social service for peace. This includes work with victims of the war, helping implement peace agreements, or programs to protect the environment or to teach computer/internet literacy.

The bold first steps taken and changes announced by the new government, while creating high expectations and enjoying the support and active collaboration of many Colombians, are already coming up against the opposition of those forces whose interests do not lie with a genuine and lasting peace or with the social and environmental justice that are also banners of the new government. It cannot be forgotten that there are seven U.S. bases on Colombian territory (two naval, three air force, two army) and an unknown number of U.S. troops, intelligence operatives and "contractors"/mercenaries of different kinds engaged in both covert operations and joint training exercises with Colombian special forces and other troops all very much shaped in the U.S. image. As well, Colombia is a "strategic partner" of the U.S. and a NATO "global partner" --  the  only country with those designations in all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

There has been no indication so far that any of these arrangements which serve to bind Colombia to the U.S. war machine are slated to change under the new government. It is difficult to imagine how total peace can be achieved -- inside Colombia or in its relations with other countries -- without addressing the nature of its relationship with the U.S. and NATO. That is where the fight of the organized people will be decisive -- for the kind of peace they consider acceptable and that ensures Colombia's contribution to making Latin America and the Caribbean a zone of peace.

This article was published in
Volume 52 Number 9 - September, 2022

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