Santos's End Game and the Prospects of a Durable Peace in Colombia

In light of the initiation of the peace process in Colombia, the country faces a stark choice between durable peace or continous war.
Nazih Richani 10/19/2012


The long road to peace has officially started in Oslo on October 18, ushering in the second phase of this arduous process. In Havana, Cuba between February and August of this year, the government of Colombia and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) secretly conducted the first phase in which they laid down an agenda of five points, which both agreed to be their main guideline for negotiation. These points are: the agrarian question, the political participation of the FARC, the end of the conflict, illicit crops, and the rights of victims. There are several expected obstacles, but two are the most salient, which I discuss in light to what the two parties declared in Oslo and what is so far known on their respective positions.


First and foremost, the agrarian question has two diametrically opposing meanings. For the government, as stated by its representatives as well as by President Juan Manuel Santos, the Land Restitution Law is the panacea. This law calls for returning lands to the peasants whom were dispossessed by violent actors and can prove their original ownership. In spite of the fact that this law has several problems and loopholes of which I will not tackle here, it remains of what the government is contemplating on the agrarian question. That is to say, the state is offering this law in lieu of any structural change in property relations that touches the latifundios (large landownerships) or addresses the whole model of rural “un”development.

This is while the FARC considers that the agrarian question is to include, in addition to the 6 million to 8 million hectares that were usurped during the last two decades, around 40 million hectares that are now under the control of latifundios (large cattle ranchers and speculators) as well as millions of more hectares granted as concessions to the extractive multinational companies. In other words, the FARC of 2012 is not thinking of the same Agrarian Platform of 1964 when peasants started their armed defense leagues in Marquetalia. This is in stark contrast to claims common within academia, mass media, and right wing neo-liberal economist circles that the FARC is still stuck in the distant past. In fact, in Oslo it has become apparent that the issue of land encapsulates not only the issue of redistribution and compensation but the entire political economy of Colombia that has become more dependent than ever on the extractive sector, oil, and bio-crops—all of which are dominating land-use and, in consequence, the rural as well as non-rural political economy. Herein we can see the complexity of what lies ahead.

This brings me to the second interrelated point, which is explaining the refusal of the government to a bilateral cease-fire agreement, which the FARC is requesting. I think this is because the state and the dominant classes know that the FARC of 2012 is not only demanding a land distribution of latifundios, which is in by itself a problematic issue because of the resistance (including violent one) anticipated. But considering that what the FARC is really after in putting the land use as its first item in the negotiation is a frontal attack against the very edifice of the rentier political economy upon which the country is currently based. Consequently, the state’s strategy is to pursue a more aggressive offensive that could target the current leader of the FARC, Timochenko, and the FARC’s commanding structure, thereby degrading its fighting capacity and forcing it to accept a much reduced—and perhaps symbolic—distribution of land that does not affect the property relations nor alter the rentier model that is plausibly the Santos’s land restitution law. This explains the government’s adamant rejection of a cease-fire.

The other issue related to land use is the problem of illicit crops, which is another point in the negotiation agenda. This is also related to the changes in land use precipitated by the rentier economic model.  Currently there are about 100,000 peasants plus their families making up a population ranging between 300,000 and 400,000 people (if we consider the fertility rates in rural areas at 3% or 4%) who depend on coca plantations to subsist. This dependency for survival is attributed to the comparative advantage that this crop offers versus traditional crops, which peasants could not transport to major markets due to poor roads conditions and the lack of storing facilities. While in the case of coca plantations they only need to plant, harvest the leaves (up to 3 or harvests/year), and then the narco-traders buy the leaves close to the production areas. This has been the case since the late 1980s when the country’s economy increasingly became geared in a different direction specializing in the above-mentioned extractive sectors—oil and biofuels. Food production and the small peasant economy under the rentier model of development became redundant and dispensable. Here again surfaces the real issue of what is at stake: the function of land and its use in a country which has been subjected to an international division of labor enforced by the free trade agreements signed with Canada and the United States where a small class of people is benefiting while millions of Colombians are either forced to leave the country or live underemployed living between absolute poverty, poverty, or close to it.

If the state and the “enlightened bourgeoisie” that President Juan Manuel Santos represents think that outsmarting the FARC or forcing concessions under the gun will solve the problem of violence in Colombia, they are in for a big surprise. Mr. Santos—from this blog corner, I just ask you look at South Africa, El Salvador, and Guatemala, where insurgencies accepted to surrender their weapons without negotiating meaningful socioeconomic structural changes in property relations and wealth redistribution. They ended up with continuous wars much worse than their respective civil wars. These new wars took the form of criminal violence taxing these nations’ economic growth and human capital, exacerbating income inequality, and diminishing quality of life and human security. In Guatemala and El Salvador, for example, according to estimates of a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) study, the costs of criminal violence are 11.5% of the GDP (by 2004), while the civil war costs averaged 5.6% of the GDP; in Guatemala, they put the average annual cost of its civil war at 4.5 % of its GDP, while by 2005, criminal violence was costing about 7.3% of its GDP. In other words, if sustainable peace is desired and if sustainable economic development is the goal, the price is the introduction of meaningful structural economic changes that deal with the heart of the matter: redistribution of wealth and land. This is particularly crucial in Colombia, one of the most socially unequal societies in the world, with a GINI coefficient of .58 for income and a GINI coefficient for land concentration reaching .85 (where 1 is total inequality and 0 represents total equality).

This is the reality Mr. Santos—killing more of the FARC and ELN will not wash away, nor would it change, what Colombia needs for a peaceful future. This is even if the insurgency accepts the state’s conditions to surrender their arms. This is not a game of poker or “Realpolitik.” Mr. Santos, what is at stake is the future of a peaceful Colombia and its coming generations.



Nazih Richani is the Director of Latin American studies at Kean University. He blogs at

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