In Depth

Can Farc’s Marxist militia rebrand as a political party?

In Depth: after a 50-year war, Colombia brings leftists in from the cold

It’s Farc, but not as Colombia knows it.

For more than 50 years the acronym stood for Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the Marxist militia whose protracted and bloody guerrilla war with the government claimed a quarter of a million lives.

However, as of two weeks ago, Farc now stands for Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Comun (the Alternative Communal Revolutionary Forces) - Colombia’s newest political party, born of a landmark peace deal agreed last November that ended more than 52 years of internal conflict.

At the party’s first conference, at the end of August, the old Farc flag - featuring crossed assault rifles - was nowhere to be seen. As their new symbol, the group’s commanders have chosen a red rose.

Last week, the Pope used the first of many Masses on his five-day tour of Colombia to call for reconciliation, urging the young in particular to rebuild their country “without the burden of hatred”.

But with an estimated 250,000 dead and tens of thousands still missing, is Farc’s rebranding as a purveyor of ballots rather than bullets pushing the limits of Colombians’ forgiveness?

Starting afresh

Farc’s second life as a political party was made possible by the peace deal agreed with President Juan Manuel Santos, under which roughly 7,000 Farc troops laid down their arms in return for government concessions to aid their integration into civilian society.

It was a historic moment for Colombians, but also a bittersweet one. For some who lost loved ones to Farc’s bullets, bombs and landmines, the deal also meant closing the door on their hope of seeing the killers brought to justice. Under the accord, most of the fighters were granted amnesty, although those responsible for the most atrocious crimes must face a special justice tribunal.

Following Farc’s first conference as a political party, former commander Ivan Marquez acknowledged that retaining the infamous acronym carried a “negative charge”, but said continuity was an important part of the movement’s rebirth.

The group was formed in response to the Colombian government’s mass seizures of land from peasant farmers, and land rights and wealth distribution will remain at the heart of its new legislative agenda.

“We are going to continue the conflict but through legal politics,” Marquez said, according to a report in The Guardian.

Farc hopes to convince those who doubt its sincerity with a platform focused on “peace, social justice, rural development, care for the environment and fighting corruption”, reports the Miami Herald.

The war on corruption is the most promising issue when it comes to conquering the graft-weary Colombian electorate. A poll conducted last month showed that, while just 12% of Colombians had a positive opinion of Farc, only 10% approved of any of the existing political parties.

Whatever their opinion, Colombian voters will have to wait nine years to accept or reject Farc at the polls. Under the peace accord, Farc are guaranteed ten congressional representatives for the next two parliamentary terms.

Even if Farc is able to shed the weight of the five decades of chaos, Colombia’s battle against internal violence isn’t over.

The dismantling of the militia has left a power vacuum in their former strongholds along the underdeveloped and sparsely populated Pacific coast region, Deutsche Welle reports.

The region “has little state presence and is ridden with drug trafficking routes, illegal mines and even animal trafficking rackets”, the website reports - and there is no shortage of candidates to rule it.

The UN estimates that since the beginning of 2017, some 6,600 villagers have been displaced by violence as left-wing and right-wing militias compete with criminal cartels and each other to take control of Farc’s old turf.

Blueprint for success

Farc’s revamp as a peaceful political movement may be an unexpected end to more than half a century of civil war, but it is not without precedent.

“In Latin America, ex-rebels have a long history of adopting democracy,” says The Christian Science Monitor, pointing out that Brazil’s former president Dilma Rousseff was once a Marxist guerrilla.

However, Rousseff fought a hated military dictatorship rather than a democratically elected government, and embraced the political process back in the 1970s, rather than in 2016. Farc’s integration will be more painful and problematic than most other regional examples.

Further afield, in conflict-stricken areas of the Middle East, the line between political movement and insurgency is sometimes blurred.

Hamas, the governing party in the Palestinian territories, originated as an anti-Israel militia and continues to operate an official policy of “armed resistance to end the occupation”. The European Court of Justice ruled in July that Hamas should remain on its terror blacklist.

Colombia is more likely to take its cues from the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, which paved the way for a power-sharing deal that ended decades of violence between Protestants and Catholics.

President Santos has cited that peace deal as an inspiration. “When I saw the picture of the Queen shaking hands with one of the IRA leaders, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is possible’,” he said last year, The Irish Times reports.

As in Colombia, Northern Ireland faced the challenge of channelling a bitter, generations-long sectional conflict towards a political resolution.

Nationalist and unionist parties had been accused of links to violent militias, but all participants in the Good Friday Agreement, which came into force in 1999, reaffirmed their commitment to “total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations”. Almost two decades later, while sectarian violence has not disappeared entirely, the practice of peaceful political debate is firmly established in Northern Ireland.

Colombia now faces a similar, and in some ways even more difficult, challenge: how to integrate former insurgents into political life, how to establish a democratic dialogue with former enemies and how to balance the competing needs of reconciliation and justice.

One lesson that Colombia can take from the Northern Irish experiment is that peace does not mean unity, says John Brewer, a professor of post-conflict studies at Queen’s University Belfast.

At their best, such accords “institutionalise peace by establishing political structures through which continued disagreement should be pursued”, he writes on The Conversation.

Crucially, Colombia must take from Northern Ireland the importance of confronting and accepting its violent past, rather than seeking to bury it.

“The truth can be troublesome,” says Brewer, “but countries seeking lasting peace must seek and debate it.”

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