Shadow Government

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Has Support for Colombia’s Peace Talks Finally Failed?

After years of negotiations, have the Colombian people lost faith in making peace with the FARC?

A woman holds a sign during the "Peace without Impunity" march, against the current peace talks with FARC rebels in Medellin, Antioquia department, on December 13, 2014. Hundreds of people marched Saturday in several cities in Colombia to question the peace negotiations between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC guerrillas. AFP PHOTO/RAUL ARBOLEDA (Photo credit should read RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry passed through Bogotá, where he re-affirmed the strong U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship and the Obama administration’s support for peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the narco-terrorist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), who have wreaked havoc on the country for some five decades. Both Kerry and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said all the expected things about how everyone supports peace, but the unmistakable elephant in the room was that, two years on, the Colombian people’s confidence that the talks can achieve any meaningful solution is declining.

Both Kerry and Santos implicitly recognized the mounting pressure by noting, in Santos’s words, the need to “speed up” the talks. Added Kerry, “I would urge everybody to use time to advantage and to move, because as with any negotiation, they cannot be open-ended.”

Indeed, a day after the Kerry-Santos meeting, thousands of Colombians demonstrated across the country for “Peace without Impunity”; that is, against any proposed amnesty for FARC guerrillas for war crimes and drug trafficking. As far as Colombians are apparently concerned, it is a non-negotiable issue. So far, members of the FARC have demanded to be considered as victims of the government, and not as perpetrators of crimes against humanity or drug trafficking. Trial balloons floated by the Santos government in recent days that, for example, the latter could be pardoned as “political crimes,” have been widely denounced in the Colombian press.

But what really threw the entire peace talks into a tailspin was the FARC’s kidnapping of a Colombian general and two aides in a remote region of the country last month. An angry Santos suspended the talks until their subsequent release. However, even with the restart of talks, it appears the kidnapping has significantly soured public opinion on their prospects.

poll following the general’s release revealed that only 34 percent of Colombians favor the peace talks today, compared to 51 percent in June. By a margin of 70 percent to 23 percent, Colombians do not believe the FARC has good intentions in the peace talks; and they reject the eventual participation of FARC leaders in the nation’s political process by 74 percent to 22 percent. It also showed Santos’s approval rating has dropped to 38 percent since his reelection last June, when he had the support of 55 percent of respondents.

In staking his presidency on a successful peace negotiation, President Santos now has a tiger by the tail. Colombians are losing faith in the talks because they have dragged on for two years now with no resolution in sight, especially since the most difficult issues — the disarming and demobilization of the FARC — have not even been addressed yet. Yet prolonging the talks suits the FARC just fine, since they lose nothing by continuing to discuss their political project as a legitimate belligerent in U.S.-supported talks, while the strength of the government’s negotiating hand grows weaker by the day.

Still, the failsafe of the FARC talks is that President Santos has insisted that any agreement should be put to a public vote (the FARC opposes this, because they know their public support is close to nil). That means all Colombians — not just the Santos government or the talks’ international cheerleaders — will have the final say on such consequential issues as impunity, terms of reintegration, and the uses of their tax dollars to settle accounts with a criminal organization that has stunted the country’s development for some 50 years, corrupted its institutions, and terrorized its citizens. Yes, let us all agree that Colombians want peace, but more importantly, let us also all recognize that they, and they alone, should be the final arbiters on just what exactly the costs should be.


José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.