Colombia, Brazil and the United Nations: is mediation the path to peace?

Colombia, Brazil and the United Nations: is mediation the path to peace?

Subject: When the Brazilian Government learned that President Uribe of Colombia was seeking UN mediation in an effort to achieve peace in his country, it asked whether it would be in order for a meeting between UN representatives and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) to take place in Brazil. The trip by President Lula to Cartagena de Indias on 17 September places Brazilian involvement in possible negotiations between the FARC and the UN firmly on the international agenda. Real progress in the peace process in Colombia would have significant repercussions not only for Brazil and Colombia, but for other countries in the region.

Summary: Álvaro Uribe came to power in February 2002, six months after the breakdown of the peace talks between the Pastrana administration and the FARC. The current president won the elections on a platform based on reinstating the rule of law, the so-called ‘doctrine of democratic security’, but Uribe never abandoned the possibility of re-establishing dialogue, something that the UN may now broker. Uribe’s Government has succeeded in polarising popular opinion even more, with the result that support for a hard line is now riding higher than ever. A call for UN intervention was contained in Uribe’s election programme and could possibly bear fruit if the FARC are prepared to negotiate seriously, setting aside deep-seated prejudices. The FARC leadership wrote to Secretary General Kofi Annan in July, asking for a meeting to express its standpoint on what it calls the ‘Colombian conflict’. It was then that Brazil’s foreign service began to take an active part, offering its services as an honest broker and its territory as a venue for a meeting between the UN and the FARC. Brazil’s motives for involvement are many, most of them related to its desire to assume a leadership role in Latin America, but the Brazilian Government is far from ignorant of the fact that, unchecked, Colombian terrorism and drug trafficking could spill across the border. Aside from the effective diplomacy emanating from Brazil’s foreign ministry, the Itamaraty Palace, despite its share of internal difficulties, there is still a long way to go before we see significant moves on the road to peace, given the FARC’s unswerving refusal to negotiate seriously. For this very reason, it is appropriate to ask the question how Brazil will respond to a failure of its mediation efforts.

Analysis: Colombia and Brazil share a common land border extending along 1,645 kilometres. Unlike some of its neighbours, Brazil has tried to seal the frontier to avoid the problems inherent in the Colombian conflict (terrorism, drug and arms trafficking, money-laundering and corruption) from affecting Brazil itself. In its efforts to achieve this it has spent large sums of money. Items range from the ‘Amazon Look-Out System’ or SIVAM, a sophisticated radar network, to ‘Operation Cobra’, aimed at combating traffic in drugs, arms and natural resources in the Colombian-Brazilian Amazonian basin. Since September 2000 increasing amounts of military hardware and personnel have been deployed along the entire frontier. The Amazonian Military Command, whose headquarters is in Manaos, has under its orders four brigades of jungle-fighting infantry, an engineering corps, a naval commando corps and two airforce squadrons. The forces on the ground are to rise from 6,000 prior to 1990 to 23,000 at the outset of 2004, thanks to the creation of an additional brigade 2,500 strong. As a result, Brazil has established a very solid wall of containment, with ten bases stretching from Piedra del Cocuy to Leticia.

The underlying concern of the Government of Brazil and the keen efforts of the Colombian Government to end the present stalemate explain why a meeting between the UN and FARC would be equally welcome in Brasilia and Bogotá. That said, such a move is frowned on by members of the Brazilian armed forces, who question its wisdom. Memories are still fresh of the failed liberation of Ingrid Betancourt in an area not far from Manaos, where a French aircraft arrived –without the consent of the Brazilian Government. Notwithstanding, the Lula administration is promoting a Brazil ready to facilitate any talks that further a peaceful settlement. This approach is in stark contrast to that of Lula’s predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, always averse to any involvement in Colombia, to the point that he and Andrés Pastrana barely spoke to each other. The Colombian Government claimed that Brazil was failing to help it in its fight against the FARC; the Brazilians replied that such help had never been sought. Although there is little ideological love lost between the present administrations, they have come to a pragmatic entente. They have had three meetings and a joint ministerial conference was recently held at the Itamaraty.

From the outset of his presidency, Uribe insisted on the help the UN should provide in bringing about a rapprochement with the FARC. In the light of the failure of the Pastrana negotiations, including the famous demilitarised or ‘clearance zone’, any serious talks with the FARC are understood to require the mediation of the UN as peace broker. This idea was the keynote of the speech by the Ecuadorian president, Lucio Gutiérrez, at the last meeting of the Río Group in Cuzco. The Uribe administration wants to reinforce the presence of the State throughout the country and, according to Foreign Minister Carolina Barco, a meeting would only be justified if it led to ‘the cessation of hostilities, to find a way out based on what the Government has insisted on all along’, This clearly runs counter to the position of the FARC, which in a recent communiqué called for the establishment of autonomous regimes in all regions in which it has a presence, a threat which, if it materialised, would affect no fewer than 13 departments. This is at best almost impossible. The High Commissioner for Peace, Luis Carlos Restrepo, confirmed a day after having seen a video in which the ex-candidate Ingrid Betancourt, kidnapped by the FARC 18 months ago, called on the Government to carry out a humanitarian exchange, that the Brazil meeting has the blessing of the Uribe Government. According to Restrepo, it could be held in the second half of October in Manaos, in the north of Brazil, something that so far has been denied by both the Colombian Government and by Marco Aurelio García, adviser to President Lula on international affairs. Participants would include Luis Édgar Devia, alias Raúl Reyes, the guerrilla leader, and the American James LeMoyne, Kofi Annan’s special envoy to Colombia. According to Brazilian sources, President Lula would like an observer appointed by him to be present also. The contacts have already been made; what is lacking is an agreed agenda and agreement on the kind of meeting to be held, whether a closed meeting, as the UN wants, or an open-door meeting, with the presence of domestic and international observers, as the FARC demands. Brazil, Colombia and the UN would like a discreet gathering; the FARC wants the presence of sympathetic countries, the Catholic Church and heavy press coverage.

Between the end of August and the beginning of September, there were clear signs that the mood in diplomatic circles in Brasilia was in favour of a meeting, as a result of which the announcement of Brazilian mediation was received in Colombia with relative optimism. The Lula administration was quick to temper the enthusiasm, given its interest in not appearing as the true architect of the plan. This is a delicate manoeuvre on which Lula’s bid for South American leadership may well hinge. Failure would seriously affect his relations with all parties. The Brazilian offer will only be confirmed if formally requested, either by the Colombian Government or by the UN itself, something that has not yet occurred, at least publicly. The Itamaraty insists on the legitimacy of the Colombian Government and its respect for its neighbour’s sovereignty. Foreign affairs adviser Marco Aurelio García says that Brazil will act ‘in total coordination with the Government of Colombia’, and that no initiative will be taken without the consent of Bogotá. The Brazilian line is that the country’s readiness to offer its territory, ‘neutral ground’ as they call it, for a meeting between the FARC and the UN is the result of the fact that Brazil has at no time called the FARC terrorists and has always supported the idea of a negotiated peace in Colombia. Hence the significance of the intense diplomatic and political negotiations of the last few weeks. Lula paid an official visit to Cartagena de Indias on 16 September to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the founding of the International Coffee Organisation (OIC). Marco Aurelio García held a meeting in Bogotá with members of the families of kidnap victims, and foreign minister Celso Amorim met James LeMoyne, Kofi Annan’s special adviser on Colombia. Brazilian diplomats are concerned about the perception of a possible connivance between some sectors of the ruling Workers’ Party (WP), given that the FARC and the WP are fellow founder members of the Sao Paulo Forum. Amorim roundly denied that his Government was organising the meeting or had any behind-the-scenes contacts with the FARC, saying that his contacts were the Colombian Government and the UN, who had sounded him out on the possibility of a meeting on Brazilian soil. The Brazilian reply, he said, would depend on the details, such as how and where the meeting would take place, but no contribution of the Colombian Government and its ‘legitimate president’ Alvaro Uribe would be turned down in the search for a peaceful and rapid solution to the conflict.

At their meeting in Cartagena, Uribe accepted Lula’s formal offer and gave it to be understood that he was prepared to reinitiate the dialogue that was broken off in February of 2002. According to Uribe, ‘Colombia has every confidence in… Brazil, [which] is prepared to close the frontier to drug trafficking, terrorism, arms smuggling and, when the time is ripe, open the doors to an entente’. Brazil’s offer of mediation and the summit meeting at Cartagena demonstrate that Colombia’s neighbours, starting with Brazil, no longer regard Colombia’s problems as purely a domestic affair; they are beginning to recognise them as a regional problem, which sooner or later they will have to address collectively, though much ground still remains to be covered. Meanwhile the US has expressed its support for the meeting with the FARC, insisting that it will not interfere in the ‘search for peace in Colombia’. A spokesman for the Department of State noted that Washington had ‘always supported the position of the Colombian Government that it would enter into a peace process with any of the [armed] groups prepared to call a ceasefire’.

All the parties involved, not least the FARC themselves, regard the idea of Brazil being the venue for the first formal meeting between the UN and the FARC favourably, although last-minute hitches turning the meeting and the talks into a failure cannot be ruled out. Hence the call for confidentiality from Uribe, in contrast to the advertising platform envisaged by the FARC. Coinciding with Lula’s visit to Cartagena, hopes of an early rapprochement between the Colombian Government and the FARC were dashed when the UN informed Uribe that it had failed to make concrete progress on the idea of holding talks on Brazilian soil. A number of analysts wondered what motives the FARC had in initiating such a dialogue, particularly after their blunt rejection of any mediation with the Uribe Government, unless another ‘clearance zone’ were to be set up. Very reasonable doubts remain as to whether the meeting will indeed pave the way for peace talks or merely serve the guerrillas’ interests in pushing for a ‘humanitarian’ exchange of prisoners for kidnapped Colombian soldiers and policemen. Such an exchange is now a pressing need for the FARC, given its dearth of battle-hardened middle-ranking fighters. Nor should it be forgotten that the guerrillas’ efforts to be heard by the UN fit in well with their latest media campaign, the purpose of which is to counteract the increasing domestic and international isolation the guerrilla group suffers as a result of the Government offensive.

The FARC initially rejected any idea of mediation by the UN, as initially proposed by Uribe, but their latest political, military and diplomatic setbacks wrought a change of tactics and a new attitude towards the UN. With their usual scant understanding of international power politics, there was a time when the FARC called the UN an agency in the service of Washington, rejecting any notion of UN mediation on the grounds that the Colombian conflict was a purely Colombian affair. In the last few months, however, it appears they have begun to appreciate the UN’s possible role as broker of a peace process. In July they wrote to Kofi Annan asking him for a meeting to explain their views on social problems and violence in the country. Annan replied that he was interested in establishing a dialogue with them, hinting that this could take place in Brazil. Some commentators believe that what the FARC are really after is an exchange of some 40 Colombian police and military personnel in their hands for 300 imprisoned terrorists; they question whether the UN will sit down with Raúl Reyes just to hear his ideas about the Colombian conflict. The general view is that given the starting point adopted by each side, regarded as extreme by the opposing party, the chances of making any real headway are small. Most people see peace as a long way off, despite the credibility of the Lula Government. Alfredo Rangel is less than optimistic, doubting whether the guerrillas will accept UN mediation with the Government, given that their real goal is to recover the political status they once enjoyed and to force the UN to countenance a humanitarian exchange. He considers that a meeting between the FARC and the UN would have a negative effect on Uribe’s stance (that the FARC is a terrorist organisation), while allowing the terrorists to recover their former international standing as a political as opposed to a criminal outfit. For this reason, he says, the Colombian Government and the UN should set their sights high, thereby obliging the FARC to abandon the idea of a meeting. On the other hand, Daniel García Peña sees the meeting as a potential breakthrough, leading to renewed negotiations next August, when Uribe begins the second half of his presidential term. The possible intervention of the UN has raised expectations not only for those directly involved. Carlos Castaño, the leader of the paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), believes that a meeting in Brazil could also serve to accelerate demobilisation of his organisation, ‘whose continued existence is seen by the FARC as an insurmountable obstacle to renewed negotiations’, and that a humanitarian exchange should be accepted. However, the issue of the paramilitary movement is such a delicate one that the UN prefers not to embroil itself in negotiations with the AUC.

Why has the Brazilian Government committed itself on this issue? The reasons are several. Some have to do with the present Government’s plan to consolidate its dominant role in South America (but not Latin America as a whole). This plan involves, among other issues, promoting Mercosur by bringing into it the members of the Andean Community of Nations (ACN), including Colombia, as a means of strengthening its negotiating position vis-à-vis the United States in the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Other reasons, causing most concern to those responsible for Brazilian security and defence, as well as to the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, relate to the increasing threat to the stability of the country posed by the risk of a spread of Colombian terrorism and drug trafficking beyond Colombian territory. With respect to the first argument, Lula recently indicated that Colombia should move more in sync with Brazil in commercial matters instead of giving the United States preferential status and that Uribe should ‘begin to take more seriously the idea that Colombia can grow faster by moving closer to Brazil rather than insist on the view that the US will really help it’. This plank of the Lula political platform is a significant one, given the privileged relationship between Colombia and the US, as witnessed by the Colombia Plan and the efforts being made to set up a free trade area between the two countries. Lula’s trip to Cartagena and the offer he made there to Uribe to mediate in the Colombian conflict constitute significant advances in the Brazilian diplomatic offensive (which as yet nobody in Latin America has criticised openly, although the Argentine Government recently distanced itself somewhat from Lula) to become the political leader of South America. In Cartagena, Lula pointed out that peace in Colombia was important to Latin America: ‘we will do whatever we can to uphold peace and security and strengthen democracy throughout the continent’, he said. Brazil is prepared ‘to offer Colombia all the help it can, and that the Colombians consider right and fitting, to solve the internal conflict the country faces’, said an Itamaraty spokesman. Diplomatic sources say that Brazil fears a continuation of the conflict in Colombia, following rumours of skirmishes between Colombian guerrillas and Brazilian troops on the frontier, and that one of the Brazilian concerns is FARC involvement in establishing guerrilla groups in Brazil or making more or less permanent contact with Brazilian drug traffickers.

Conclusions: The possibility of a meeting between the UN and the FARC has raised unwarranted expectations. The chances of such negotiations achieving progress are practically nil, given the FARC’s refusal to talk seriously about demobilisation. This is, at bottom, the key issue. The Colombian Government, perfectly legitimately, insists that this is the only possible negotiating stance. The FARC, with a broad agenda for the meeting, have consistently ignored the presence of other potential mediators within Colombian democracy, such as the parliament. Clearly if one side does not want to negotiate, negotiations will fail. What the FARC wants is to use the UN as a sounding board for its own demands and as a lever with which to break down the growing isolation it is subjected to by the Bogotá Government’s antiterrorist offensive. However, the question that must be answered is what will happen if the talks break down and, particularly, if it is clear that responsibility for their failure lies with the FARC. How will the Lula administration react to being publicly snubbed before its peers across the continent? Should this occur, there is just a chance that Brazilian diplomacy will make greater efforts to find a regional solution to the conflict, one that could eventually lead to consideration of military intervention by South American countries, a move that President Uribe has never ceased to urge.

Carlos Malamud

Senior Analyst, Latin America
Real Instituto Elcano

Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, and Professor of Latin American History at the UNED.

Written by Carlos Malamud

Carlos Malamud is Senior Analyst for Latin America at the Elcano Royal Institute, and Professor of Latin American History at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Madrid, Spain. He is a Corresponding Member of the National Academy of History of Argentina. In 2015 he was selected by Esglobal as one of the ‘50 most influential […]