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Keri Phillips: This is Rear Vision, RN’s backgrounder to the news. Hello, I’m Keri Phillips. Today Columbia, the FARC and the referendum that dashed hopes for peace.

Juan Manuel Santos [archival]: [translation] Right now we are going to decide among all of us what is the path forward that we should take so that peace, that peace we all want, can be possible and be even more strengthened in the end. I will not give in, I will continue seeking peace until the very last minute of my term because this is the path to be able to leave a better country for our children.

Keri Phillips: An interpreter for President Juan Manuel Santos, speaking after narrowly losing last weekend's vote on the peace plan he'd negotiated with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, the FARC. The agreement had promised an end to more than 50 years of conflict between rebels, paramilitaries and the state. The FARC had begun as an agrarian guerrilla movement in the years when leftist ideas about social justice were sweeping Latin America. It became a violent insurgency, the longest running in the region, in which a quarter of a million people died, eight million were displaced and tens of thousands disappeared.

Columbia began the second half of the 20th century in violence. In 1948, a civil war erupted between Liberals and Conservatives, political parties representing competing interests of the wealthy Colombian elites. During a decade of conflict known as La Violencia, some 200,000 people were killed. At the same time other political undercurrents were flowing in Latin America, and as La Violencia ended, Fidel Castro's revolutionary communist movement was gaining control in Cuba. Garry Leech is the author of Beyond Bogota: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia.

Garry Leech: The majority of that time, the Conservatives were in power, and they were using the military to target Liberals, but at the same time communist peasants as well in the countryside. And by 1958, afraid that this sectarian violence might evolve into an uprising by the poor majority, the elites in both the Liberal and Conservative parties kind of united, formed a national front government, and then turned the military onto the communist peasants. And many of these peasant communities in the Andean Highlands in the centre of Colombia were targeted by the army, they fled the Andean Highlands into the Amazon, where they colonised the Amazon, deforested it, started creating new communities there. And many of these peasant groups took up arms to defend themselves against the military repression. And it was these groups out of La Violencia that finally formed the FARC guerrilla movement in 1964.

The FARC actually pre-date the Cuban guerrillas. Unlike most of the other movements in Latin America who were urban intellectuals influenced by the Cuban Revolution who then took to the mountains to start guerrilla movements, the FARC's roots actually are in the peasantry. It is truly a peasant-based guerrilla organisation, and its strongholds have always been the rural areas of southern and eastern Colombia. In fact most of those regions have very little government presence, if any State presence at all, and the FARC for 40 years has been the de facto government in these regions. They've never come close to achieving power, but they have maintained control over as much as 30% or 40% of the national territory for several decades.

Keri Phillips: During the 1980s the illegal cocaine trade added a new twist to the conflict in Colombia. Powerful and violent drug cartels developed, notably the Cali Cartel and Pablo Escobar's Medellin Cartel, inadvertently providing the FARC with much needed revenue raising possibilities.

Journalist [archival]: The Colombian government in South America has made one of the year's biggest drug hauls in a raid on a jungle refinery.

Journalist [archival]: Another aspect of the raid which is being given major publicity is the authorities' contention that the cocaine laboratory also served as a camp for guerrillas of the country's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. According to the reports, the drug traffickers have enlisted the help of armed rebels to guard their jungle laboratories in return for regular supplies of modern weapons to the guerrillas. If true, these reports would add weight to recent accounts of an unholy alliance between the cocaine mafia and guerrilla groups which has spawned a new word, 'narco-terrorism', amongst those involved in the fight against the drug trade.

Paul Wolf: I think it took hold in Colombia because so much of Colombia is wild and not controlled by the government.

Keri Phillips: Paul Wolf is a human rights lawyer in Washington DC.

Paul Wolf: And it's not because Colombians use drugs. It's really the interaction of the wilderness and the fact that there are people who need money. Originally, the FARC were very much against drug trafficking, and their idea was to kidnap the relatives of the rich drug traffickers, then extract millions of dollars in ransoms, because they thought that would be a very popular thing for them to do, that no one likes drug traffickers so we're going to kidnap them and extort money from them and we'll be heroes. And they did that for a long time, and the first paramilitary groups, one of the early ones was called Death to Kidnappers, and it was formed by drug traffickers, and they were mad because so many of them had been kidnapped for ransom.

The AUC was a national grouping of little independent self-defence forces. Now, some of those were self-defence, they were like a militia, the people in the town were tired of being scared and terrorised by the FARC so they formed their own citizens' militia. Whenever the FARC would come to town, they would defend themselves. Others had I guess more sinister backgrounds because they were drug traffickers' private armies to defend their trade. But whatever they all had in common was that they were the enemies of the guerrillas.

Keri Phillips: During the 1980s the opportunity arose for the FARC to leave the jungle.

Garry Leech: Yes, the government of President Belisario Betancourt, in the early 1980s, started negotiations with the FARC, and the FARC and the government actually agreed to a cease-fire in 1985. As part of that cease-fire process, the FARC, along with several sectors in civil society, formed a new leftist political party, called the Patriotic Union, to engage in the political process, electoral process, at the same time the FARC was negotiating peace with the government.

However, the right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia who were formed primarily in the early '80s by the drug traffickers, the big cartels like Medellin and Cali Cartel, as well as the Colombian military and rich landowners, they turned their sights on members of the new Patriotic Union political party. Between 1985 and 1990, more than 2,000 members of the Patriotic Union were assassinated, including two Presidential candidates and four elected Congressmen. So by 1990 the Patriotic Union had basically been eradicated, the remaining members of that have fled into exile or they've fled into the jungles and joined the FARC, and this is where that second wave of new generation of commanders in the FARC who are more urban intellectuals, where they came from. That slaughter also led to the end of the peace process. By 1990 the ceasefire and the peace process was over, and the FARC again, throughout the '90s went back to waging war on the State again.

Keri Phillips: In 1998, Andrés Pastrana, a man who had himself once been kidnapped by the Medellin drug cartel, became the President of Colombia on a policy of working out a peace deal with the FARC.

The centrepiece of Pastrana's presidency was Plan Colombia, which combined the ambitious goals of ending the armed conflict through negotiation, curbing the drug trade and revitalising the social and economic life of the country. The contribution of the US government, a partner in the scheme, was $1.5 billion in mainly military aid.

Garry Leech: Well, the US has always been for the most part a relatively close ally of Colombia. After World War II, in the period that was known as La Violencia in Colombia in the 1950s, the US provided a lot of military aid to Colombia and they provided the planes and the bombs that started targeting and bombing these communities that eventually forced the peasants to become the FARC. One of the reasons they had such close ties is Colombia was the only Latin American government to send combat troops to Korea in the Korean War, to fight with the US troops, and so this is reciprocated with US aid to Colombia. So they had a close relationship that was rooted in their common anti-communist views. That support continued throughout the '60s and '70s and '80s. It was not to the same levels as support to countries like El Salvador and Guatemala during those decades, because the FARC never numbered more than 3,000 fighters until the end of the '80s. So they were never a serious threat to overthrow the Colombian government, Colombia being significantly bigger than the Central American countries.

But in the '90s when the FARC grew substantially from profiting from the coca trade, by the late '90s the FARC were then launching full-fledged assaults, full-frontal assaults against Colombian military bases in southern Colombia, sometimes 1,000 guerrillas at a time, and they actually defeated the military and took over military bases in southern Colombia.

Keri Phillips: In 2002, Alvaro Uribe was elected president of Colombia.

Journalist [archival]: Results from Colombia's Presidential elections show the right-wing candidate, Alvaro Uribe is the clear winner, with more than 53% of the vote.

Journalist [archival]: The victory of Alvaro Uribe has been historic for several reasons. First, he as an independent candidate has broken the stranglehold the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties have held on power since Colombia's independence from Spain in 1819. Mr Uribe has a strong mandate for his plan to re-conquer the half of the country that's under the control of Colombia's warring factions.

Garry Leech: By the end of the peace process between the Pastrana administration and the FARC, Colombians were very disenchanted with the peace process and efforts at peace, so Alvaro Uribe ran for President as an Independent. He ran on a hardline platform, he said, 'I will not negotiate with the guerrillas, unless they declare unilateral ceasefire.' He pledged to strengthen the military and go after the guerrillas and defeat them on the battlefield. And that resonated with Colombians, who were frustrated with almost three years of peace talks that weren't going anywhere, while the violence was actually escalating in the country. At the end of the 1980s the paramilitaries only had about 1,500 fighters, they were up to about 12,000 by the end of the '90s. The FARC, during the same ten-year period increased from about 3,500 fighters to 16,000 to 18,000 by the end of the '90s.

So Alvaro Uribe came into power, took office August 7, 2002, and with massive US backing under Plan Colombia, which had been initiated under the Pastrana administration, but actually escalated under Uribe, primarily because after 9/11 the US aid was not only a war on drugs, it was a war on terror in Colombia, targeting the FARC. So with all this US backing, Uribe did succeed in strengthening the Colombian military, he dramatically reduced the number of Colombians being kidnapped, and he did push the FARC back further away from the urban areas of Colombia, and the FARC did have to retreat back towards their traditional rural strongholds.

Jennifer McCoy: During the 2000s under the presidency of Alvaro Uribe, there was a major focus with support from the United States in terms of a lot of military aid, on defeating the FARC guerrillas militarily.

Keri Phillips: Jennifer McCoy is a distinguished professor at Georgia State University. She is a political scientist and Latin American specialist.

Jennifer McCoy: So between 2002 and 2010 during his presidency they were weakened considerably and the numbers were reduced from maybe 20,000 to about 8,000 troops. But he couldn't completely defeat them militarily. So the next president that was elected who had actually been his Defence Minister, Juan Manuel Santos, who is the current President, decided to start negotiations. Of course, as you mentioned, there had been past attempts at negotiations that had failed. But given that President Santos' focus on the realisation that Colombia needed to carry out a number of reforms to address the very deep income inequality, particularly inequality between the rural areas that were very poor and the urban areas, he knew that to develop the rural areas he needed peace and to end the violence there. And so he did start secret negotiations that ended up in four years of talks that resulted in this peace agreement that was signed last week.

Keri Phillips: This is Rear Vision with Keri Phillips on RN, online and on mobile. Don't forget you can hear us whenever you like on the ABC radio app, available for free at Google Play and Apple's App Store.

Last week, the people of Colombia voted against a peace deal struck between the government and the FARC, a guerrilla group that had been responsible for kidnapping, murder, extortion and disappearances over a 50-year period. The deal had taken four years to negotiate and it was expected to be endorsed but it was voted down by a narrow margin. What exactly was in the agreement?

Jennifer McCoy: The agreement does have some substantive areas such as land reform, changing drug policies to provide alternatives for small farmers to growing coca and ending fumigation. And it does expand political participation for a number of groups who had been marginalised, such as Afro Colombians, indigenous Colombians. So there were some broader policy reforms included. But the two most contentious areas had to do with accountability for human rights crimes over the course of five decades of conflict, and whether the FARC guerrillas should be able to form a political party and run for political office in the future.

So the two main points of the opposition to this peace agreement had to do with the argument that they were getting away with impunity, that they weren't being punished sufficiently. And that was because this agreement has a form of justice referred to as restorative justice. So rather than insisting on putting people in jail, putting the guerrillas in jail, which would be very difficult to convince them to negotiate an end to the conflict by saying 'lay down your arms and come to prison', because remember this was not a military victory. They were not surrendering, this was a negotiated end to a conflict.

And so the government had to figure out a way to induce them to give up their arms, and the main way was to say 'you won't be spending the rest of your life in jail and you will be able to transform your army into a political party and carry out your struggle peacefully through democracy and present your ideas through the democratic process by running for office'. That has happened in many other countries who have ended civil wars such as El Salvador, Angola, Mozambique, South Africa of course, the ANC. So that is a normal process.

In this case there is accountability for human rights crimes which is unusual in most peace agreements which simply give a general amnesty to everybody; the military, the guerrillas, whoever carried out human rights abuses. There is accountability, and Colombia is following a relatively new international law which is the Rome Statute signed in 2002 along with the formation of the International Criminal Court, which obligates Colombia to punish crimes against humanity and war crimes. And so the punishment is that the guerrillas responsible for those must acknowledge what they did, so tell the truth, acknowledge responsibility, and be sentenced to 5 to 8 years of restricted liberty, which would be in a specific zone with restricted movement, and while there they must perform community labour such as removing landmines or reconstructing villages that had been destroyed. So that's the idea of restorative justice.

Also pay reparations to the victims. Not everyone in Colombia agreed with that and some want them to go to jail. And they were going to be guaranteed five seats in the House and five seats in the Senate within the Congress, that they would run candidates but they would be guaranteed sort of a quota of representation. And this is five seats out of 166 members in the house and similar in the Senate. So that was another point of contention, that maybe they shouldn't be guaranteed any seats, that they would simply have to take their luck at the ballot box along with everyone else.

Keri Phillips: These controversial elements of the agreement were woven into a very effective campaign for a 'no' vote in the referendum by former president Alvaro Uribe, from the Democratic Center Party. He argued that the FARC were getting off too lightly and that allowing them seats in Congress meant that one day they might win office and turn Colombia into a failed state like Venezuela. César Rodríguez is the executive director of Dejusticia, a human rights think tank and advocacy group in Bogotá.

César Rodríguez: Those were all overblown concerns, those did not correspond to the reality of the powers and the concessions given by the agreement, but they were highly effective in mobilising the ‘no’ vote. And a third component that explains the vote is the fact that there were some pieces in the agreement that were seized by conservative churches, mostly evangelical churches, that strongly disliked the progressive measures in the agreement having to do with women's rights and LGBTI rights.

Keri Phillips: Given that the referendum was not binding (the government did not need public confirmation to move ahead with the agreement) why was it held at all? Miguel Galvis is the editor of Latin Correspondent, an online English language news service.

Miguel Galvis: I think it was the plan from the beginning, from the President Juan Manuel Santos that he wanted that the peace process finished in the best way possible, and he thought that the better way possible was that the people would have accepted the deal and would have made it validated to the Colombian law. But at the end his own acceptance, his own image in front of the Colombian people were playing I think against the peace process.

Keri Phillips: And is it possible to say anything about the people who voted against it? Were they people who had been affected by violence, where they people who had had a personal experience that made them feel very strongly that this was too lenient, too generous to FARC?

Miguel Galvis: According to the official data the votings were very, very different from the areas where FARC struck in the last years in the hardest way, and in the cities. It can be said that the cities voted ‘no’, while the rural Colombians that was struck by the FARC voted ‘yes’.

Keri Phillips: It sounds like it's a very complicated and complex peace deal. Was its complexity confusing to people?

Miguel Galvis: Yes, of course. It was 297 pages, but the language it used, it was not as easy to understand for all the people. In some ways you needed to know law, economics, things that the normal people in a country like Colombia don't know. And most people have not even read the agreement because it was too long, there was little time, only one month to understand the final document, and there were no culture about reading that helped to understand such a complicated document. It was too complicated for the normal people.

Journalist [archival]: The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the armed wing of the Communist Party, began their fight against the government in the 1960s. Based in the countryside, it was a rebellion against searing inequality in the country.

Keri Phillips: That may have been how they began, but the FARC have come a long way in the past half-century. While the FARC may once have been a leftist group standing up for the unrepresented rural poor, are they now anything more than an armed drug gang?

Jennifer McCoy: Many Colombians view them as having evolved over the years from less of an ideological movement fighting for principles of social justice and reform, moving more into an almost mercenary group who use the drug trade and extortion and kidnapping for ransom as a means of financing themselves and simply continuing the fight but just supporting themselves, and less principled now.

Public opinion polls have shown that they are not popular at all and they have ranged between 1% and 4% in terms of approval or popularity in public opinion polls. More recently that had gone up to 8% to 12% as they were moving towards the very end of the peace agreement.

The FARC themselves will say that those public opinion polls are not accurate and that they do have support in rural areas where people either are not being included in the polls or are afraid to answer that they support them for fear of retribution. And they often say that the media in Colombia, along with the government, is very biased against them and makes people believe that they are kidnappers and child recruiters et cetera, which they deny.

César Rodríguez: FARC these days are a combination of a political group who still hold a political agenda that they brought to the negotiation table in Havana, otherwise they would not have spent four years trying to reach deals on issues such as land reform or political participation. So they always kept that political agenda that goes back to the 1960s.

They did over time, and especially in the 1980s and 1990s, become heavily involved in the drug business, with the result that the most militaristic and the more business oriented fractions of FARC took over and had a disproportionate influence on the recent path of the organisation. That also led to a number of crimes being committed by FARC groups that were directly against their political agenda, the historical political agenda. So that heavily discredited them, even in the eyes of progressive Colombian groups who would otherwise back in the 1960s in a very different context would have sympathised with the claims for social justice.

Journalist [archival]: Colombian voters have rejected a landmark peace deal with FARC rebels in a shock referendum result with just over 50% voting against it. It is arguably the most important vote in Colombia's history. FARC rebels have agreed to lay down their weapons after 52 years of conflict in order to join the political process. President Santos has previously warned that there is no plan B for ending the war which has killed 260,000 people. But the surprise result means the peace process is now shrouded in uncertainty.

Keri Phillips: In the wake of the 'no' vote, both sides have committed to maintain the ceasefire, but what might happen next?

César Rodríguez: What's happening at the moment is that the negotiations have turned from a bilateral process between the FARC and the Colombian government into a trilateral negotiation process between those two parties and their most powerful members of the ‘no’ coalition, namely the party of former President Alvaro Uribe. The hope and the prospect is for the three of them to reach a revised agreement that would take the existing agreement as a starting point but would make changes to those points that had been most controversial. Again, those having to do with punishment for serious crimes, those having to do with the political participation of FARC as they make the transition from an armed group into a political party. And it looks like the right-wing party of President Uribe, is also demanding that the more progressive component of the agreement, meaning land reform and political participation be removed or heavily weakened.

The good news is that both the FARC and the Democratic Centre, Uribe's political party, have both said that they would not want the process to finish and that they are keen on continuing the conversation in the hope of reaching a new agreement.

Keri Phillips: César Rodríguez, the executive director of Dejusticia, a human rights think tank and advocacy group in Bogotá. We also heard: Miguel Galvis, the editor of the Latin Correspondent, the English language news website; political scientist Jennifer McCoy, the Latin American specialist from Georgia State University; independent journalist Garry Leech; and human rights lawyer from Washington DC, Paul Wolf.

Jenny Parsonage is the sound engineer for Rear Vision. Bye from Keri Phillips.

Garry LeechIndependent journalist and authorPaul WolfHuman rights lawyer in Washington DCDr Jennifer McCoyDistinguished University Professor of Political Science
Georgia State UniversityCésar RodríguezExecutive director of Dejusticia, a human rights think tank and advocacy group
Bogotá, ColombiaMiguel GalvisEditor of Latin Correspondent, an English language news website

PresenterKeri Phillips ProducerKeri Phillips