Shadow Government

Colombia’s Peace Talks are on the Brink of Failure

The House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere is holding a hearing this week on the status of ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the narco-terrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym FARC), who have been wreaking havoc on the country since the early 1960s. The hearing could not be timelier ...

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The House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere is holding a hearing this week on the status of ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the narco-terrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym FARC), who have been wreaking havoc on the country since the early 1960s.

The hearing could not be timelier — the talks are not going well. The latest troubles began last April when the FARC violated a de facto truce (whereby they declared a cease-fire, while the government backed off its campaign of air strikes) by ambushing a military convoy, leaving 10 soldiers dead. That prompted a resumption of military bombing raids on FARC targets, in which scores of guerrillas have been killed, including one of the FARC’s negotiators.

In turn, the FARC has unleashed a wave of attacks on security forces, civilian targets, and infrastructure not seen in the country since before the peace talks began two-and-a-half years ago. In particular, they have targeted oil pipelines and electricity infrastructure, causing severe environmental damage and loss of power to hundreds of thousands in the countryside.

In two instances, according to the Los Angeles Times, FARC guerrillas forced drivers of 22 oil tanker trucks to empty their loads of crude oil on rural roadways, polluting fields and a stream that runs into the Putumayo River, which empties into the Amazon.

The onslaught has outraged Colombian public opinion. According to one Colombian Senator who is part of President Santos’s governing coalition, “The people are getting fed up with this peace process … either something positive that unlatches the peace process happens or there is no way the people will support this process ever again.”

Public opinion is crucial, because President Santos has assured that he will submit any final agreement to a popular vote (although the mechanism hasn’t been established yet).

If that is the case, prospects for its passage are dismal — if they ever can get to a final agreement. According to a recent poll, fewer than 18 percent of Colombians are in favor of continuing the talks while the violence is ongoing, and 47.5 percent think they should be suspended. Moreover, only 9.4 percent agree there should be a bilateral ceasefire, as many outsiders are promoting. (It is a supremely ironic that there is more support for the peace negotiations abroad than there is among the Colombian people themselves.)

Again, the peace talks have dragged on for more than two years now and the most important issues have yet to be even discussed: the disarmament and demobilization of FARC fighters and the issue of justice for FARC leaders. It has hardly surprising that a skeptical public is at the end of their rope. They long ago rejected any FARC pretense to political legitimacy and see them as little more than a criminal mafia that terrorizes all citizens they encounter. Now, they see their government entangled in a web of ongoing negotiations where the FARC appears to have gone from a position of weakness (after being decimated under Santos’s predecessor Álvaro Uribe) to one of strength, where they are now dictating the conditions.

With the status quo no longer tenable, something needs to change. But President Santos remains defiant: “Those who want to force me to end the peace dialogue are also mistaken. I will persist, even if that means sacrificing all of my political capital.”

But it is not about summarily ending the talks; it is about the government regaining the momentum and re-strengthening its position. Currently, an emboldened FARC is feeling no pressure to bring the negotiations to a close. President Santos can begin to try and restore public confidence in the process by suspending the talks and remounting a military offensive until the FARC demonstrates a serious desire for an end to hostilities. At the same time, he could also go over the heads of FARC leaders by offering the rank-and-file incentives to defect, lay down their arms, and reintegrate.

The Obama administration is not some disinterested bystander either. Through three presidential administrations, the United States has invested some $8 billion to help stabilize Colombia. It has good people working the issue, led by former George H.W. Bush diplomat Bernard Aronson. Bold action is necessary to right this listing ship. The Obama administration must begin to quietly use its influence with President Manuel Santos to convince him his legacy hangs in the balance.

GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP/Getty Images

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