Colombia seeks peace after 49 year rebellion

A petal for peace: A Colombian activist confronts a soldier during peace talks © Getty Images

Kidnappers, drug barons and revolutionaries, Farc guerillas have terrorised Colombia’s countryside for decades. Now, the government has taken a historic step towards peace with the rebels.

The Colombian Civil War has lasted for half a century, claimed roughly 250,000 lives and brought a country of 47 million people to the brink of collapse. This week, a groundbreaking agreement between rebels and the government has brought the bitter enemies closer to peace than ever.

The fighting began in the 1960s, when forces loyal to the right-wing government clashed with communist rebels. Marxist militants responded by forming a group called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, dedicated to overthrowing the state in the name of an impoverished peasantry.

Farc was not strong enough to achieve that goal. But neither could the government crush it. Colombia became a battleground, with whole swathes of its countryside under rebel control. Desperate for money to sustain their revolutionary endeavours, rebel leaders turned to an increasingly valuable resource which the country produced in abundance: cocaine.

Gradually, the socialist revolutionary organisation became a powerful criminal gang. Billions of pounds worth of drugs passed through the Farc on their way to Europe and the USA, and the money fuelled an endless cycle of terrorism and violence.

Not content with drug trafficking, the rebels also resorted to kidnapping innocent people for ransom. Between 1997 and 2007, almost 7,000 people were taken hostage – many of whom have never been freed. Colombian cities had the highest murder rates in the world, and the country was labelled a ‘failed state’.

Faced with such an unscrupulous enemy, previous governments have pledged to crush the rebels. But President Juan Manuel Santos came to power on a promise to end the conflict; and since Farc renounced kidnappings last year, negotiations have been underway.

This week, the sworn enemies reached a crucial agreement the issue that began it all: land reform. Farms that have been seized by either side will be returned to their original owners, while the government will take steps to redistribute land to small farmers.

There are still hurdles to overcome. But for one of the world’s longest and most destructive conflicts, the end is finally in sight.

The Farc side

President Santos has hailed the agreement as a momentous stride towards peace in his country. And many Colombians agree: nothing is more important than ending the ravages of this interminable war, they say.

But at what price? By agreeing to these talks, opposition leaders claim, President Santos has given a gang of 8,000 vicious criminals influence over policies that will shape his nation for years to come. The message is clear, they say: violence pays. The only way this war should have ended is with the annihilation of the Farc.

You Decide

  1. Imagine you are in charge of a country which was being terrorised by a criminal gang. Would you strike a deal to end the violence, or fight until your enemy was vanquished?
  2. Is it ever justifiable to take up arms against your government? If so, when?

Activities

  1. In pairs, try to think of at least three factors that have contributed to the civil conflict in Colombia.
  2. ‘No armed rebellion has ever succeeded in achieving its original goals.’ Write a paragraph outlining whether you agree with this statement, using examples you have studied in history.

Some People Say...

“There must be no negotiation with terrorists of any kind.’ Ronald Reagan”

What do you think?

Q & A

A poor Latin American country, an endless civil war – what’s new about that?
For a start, Colombia is not simply a poor country. There’s a lot of poverty there, but it’s a populous place with a strong and growing economy. Colombia is one of seven states known as the CIVETS, rising nations which are expected to play an increasingly important global role in coming decades.
Well good luck to them. Still, this war has nothing to do with us, right?
Don’t be so sure: the Colombian conflict has long been fuelled by money from drugs sold in the developed world. If everybody in Europe and America stopped taking cocaine tomorrow, Latin America would almost instantly become a safer place. If you need another reason to say no to this highly addictive drug, there it is.

Word Watch

Marxist
Karl Marx was a 19th Century historian and philosopher who believed that history was defined by struggles between oppressors and the oppressed. He argued that capitalism would inevitably be overthrown by the working classes and replaced by a utopian communist society in which all people were equal.
Impoverished peasantry
Inequality is a huge issue all over Latin America, with wealth still divided between the descendents of European settlers and those of indigenous Americans. But the problem is particularly serious in Colombia, with 52% of farms controlled by 1% of landowners. Almost half of the population is classed as living in poverty.
Cocaine
The coca leaf is native to South Americans, and has been chewed as a mild stimulant for centuries. But when it is refined into the white powder called cocaine, it is far more powerful and addictive.
Terrorism
As well as kidnapping, Farc has also set off bombs in urban areas, laid landmines and recruited thousands of young teenagers as soldiers. Many governments, including the USA and the EU, have labelled it a terrorist organisation.
Failed state
A country where the government can no longer control its territory, maintain law and order and provide basic services.

Subjects

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