War as usual in Colombia

Dialogue with the FARC is the main topic on the presidential campaign trail But Colombians are skeptical about the success of the peace process

The Colombian city of Bogotá.
The Colombian city of Bogotá.TOYA VIUDES

From the busy streets lined with restaurants and terrace cafés in Bogotá’s financial district, where residents who are heading out for their morning jogs run into well-dressed professionals on their way to a fruit stand to grab something for the office, Colombia does not feel like a country at war. “I don’t get the impression that the negotiations with the FARC in Havana are real,” says Ana María Bautista, a 26-year-old woman who works in the oil industry. “We don’t know if they are bearing fruit or not. Everything is happening over there, in Cuba, behind our backs.” The war is also going on over there, in the countryside. “Here you can look the other way. When there is news of a massacre, or an attack, it doesn’t shock you anymore. We have gotten used to it. We have grown up with it. But, I still think we need to negotiate.”

The peace talks have taken over the presidential campaign season. President Juan Manuel Santos has bet his political career on the process. It seems as though for the first time in decades, after 220,000 deaths and almost six million people displaced, it may be possible to bring the conflict to an end through dialogue.

But according to a number of different polls, Colombians now have different priorities. Recently the mathematician Antanas Mockus – Santos’ main rival in 2010 – said peace would be a relief to many people. Still, it would not mean as much to others, he said, because they have gotten used to living with the war. “Many of us are desensitized,” Mockus said.

They sit down and talk but last week they were killing. And the drug gangs are backing them up. It’s good business for them”

Polls are usually carried out in the largest urban centers but the war has mostly had an impact on the countryside. According to Santos advisor Mauricio Rodríguez, the conflict affects about 10 percent of the 1,100 municipalities in Colombia where five percent of the population – 2.5 million Colombians – live. The violence sometimes feels remote. “But there is a mistake,” Rodríguez says. “The state allocates about $5 billion to fight against the guerillas. That is money that does not go into health, education or sanitation. That’s about 1-1.5 percent of GDP.”

Two months ago, the peace process was the third most important issue for Colombians. It dropped to sixth place a month ago. Education, jobs, and healthcare are the most pressing concerns. “What peace?” asks Elvira Aguilar, a 49-year-old store clerk. “The politicians don’t do anything. That’s just blah blah blah. People are desperate here. You can get robbed over just about anything and there is more crime. Everything is upside down in this country.” Aguilar has two children and she wishes they could have access to higher education. “But what university am I going to send them to if it costs a million and a half pesos each semester and I only make half that every month?”

People in Colombia have reservations about the peace process because of past failures. Many, like William Óscar Rodríguez, a 50-year-old driver, don’t believe the FARC wants to give up the fight. He doesn’t think it will observe the terms of the agreements with the government, if they ever agree. “They sit down and talk but last week they were killing,” he says. “And, the drug gangs are backing them. It’s a good business for them.” In a survey published last Sunday, 63 percent of those polled do not believe the talks will bear fruit. Still, most of them say negotiation is the best way to end the war.

Juan Carlos Palou, an analyst who has studied the conflict, says the country harbors a deep hatred toward the FARC. That is why “it’s difficult for people to accept the fact that the government is negotiating with them. Former President Álvaro Uribe’s ill-intentioned strategy to incite that hatred and insist that the military solution was the best way to avoid throwing the country into the drug traffickers’ hands” doesn’t help rally support for the current negotiations either. For Palou’s favorite candidate, Oscar Iván Zuluaga, the question is skepticism. “The talks have been going for two years and yet there are no concrete results,” he begins. “In fact, the FARC keeps on recruiting children, killing police officers and soldiers and it continues to extort businesses. The Colombian people do not believe in this peace process. And their immediate problems have to do with security in cities, education, unemployment and social unrest.”

Therein lies his argument in this election. Zuluaga makes a point that hits home for those who give Uribe (2002-2010) credit for using the military to corner the FARC. They would vote for the candidate who would run things with an iron fist.

Many say it’s impossible to think about the future while the war goes on. As the historian Eduardo Posada Carbó wrote: “The high rates of homicide and the lack of security, which are in one way or another linked to keeping the conflict alive, are serious impediments when it comes to building a civilized society.”

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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