Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos described a new agreement between his government and the FARC rebels as “a new light of hope” on the path toward peace — so you can forgive the media for getting a little ahead of themselves. Some stories referred to the agreement as a “new ceasefire deal” and called it a “historic agreement.” That’s not quite the case — but there’s still good reason to be happy.
As recently as a few months ago, it was looking like dire straits for the nearly three-year old peace talks, as renewed conflict and falling public support for the process threatened to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But yesterday, to get the talks back on track, the Colombian government agreed for the first time to reduce military action against the FARC in response to a renewed ceasefire offered by the rebel group.
This move will give both sides additional time to finish negotiating an agreement that all want to see become a reality. And, though President Juan Manuel Santos faces the prospect of being called to task for “capitulating” to FARC demands, in truth, this bet carries little downside risk: the government can simply resume military operations if the guerrillas renege on their commitment.
In declaring a “de-escalation of military actions” to begin on July 20, the Colombian government is taking a big step in the direction of a bilateral ceasefire, which the FARC has long been asking for. It’s hard to negotiate peace while armies are targeting each other in the field, so the de-escalation should prove helpful — but it’s hard to say what, precisely, it means. It’s not exactly a bilateral ceasefire (or at least is not phrased as such), since Santos does not want to be seen as completely giving in to the FARC, especially given their recent hostilities. Nevertheless, the government has pledged to reduce raids and bombings — though it will respond if attacked. The FARC has gone a step further and committed to suspending all “offensive actions.” And although the U.N. will help verify these commitments, no one knows what will happen should there be an accident or intentional transgression on the battlefield. Still, the hope is that this will buy time to finish hammering out the remaining substantive issues to make a final peace deal possible. Given the unpredictable nature of war, the parties have also committed to expediting the negotiations by putting all the remaining agenda items — justice for FARC members, reintegration of the guerrillas, and the agreement’s final implementation — on the table at once, instead of proceeding sequentially.
Although the de-escalation comes after a few bumpy months, this turn of events should come as no surprise. True, public support for the talks and for President Santos hit a low point just last week as the government’s lead negotiator (and the talks’ main cheerleader), former vice-president Humberto de la Calle, struck a note of concern by warning negotiations could collapse. There was also a flurry of dispiriting events: a reshuffling of military chiefs, renewed accusations by Human Rights Watch that the military has committed extrajudicial killings, reports of massive increases in coca production, the killing and capture of army soldiers by the FARC, and two explosions in the wealthy northern part of Bogotá (by suspected ELN rebels). Colombians could be forgiven for being a little on edge.
As I have argued, however, even if skirmishes continue, the structural incentives for both parties to the conflict are still pushing them toward a deal. The FARC have pulled back from the brink and want a deal badly — so badly, in fact, that they have a strange way of showing it. With their ranks diminishing and an increasingly effective Colombian military in hot pursuit, they have used a two-pronged strategy to keep the talks going. First, and somewhat ironically, they unleashed new attacks and bombed oil pipelines to coerce the government to pause the fighting. At the same time, to show they are willing to cooperate, they have made serious concessions: they have committed to the joint removal of land mines with the government, early implementation of the agreement to eradicate drug production (historically one of their primary revenue sources), and a resumption of their unilateral ceasefire. Why? Because FARC knows they’re on the ropes — and this deal is the best they’re going to get.
With the de-escalation, the government is pursuing a “tit-for-tat” strategy of using restraint but responding forcefully if necessary. In the shadow of the previous Caguan peace talks from 1999-2002, when the FARC used the occasion to re-arm, right-wing critics in Colombia will claim that today the government let down its guard. But de-escalation doesn’t mean surrender, since it can be reversed at any time. As Santos commented, it could take another 20 years to defeat the FARC militarily, if this is even possible. So, even though de-escalation may appear to be a risky gamble, it’s really a bet with little downside, since the government can resume military operations whenever it wants. And, if this de-escalation helps the peace talks along, this only fits with the government’s strong incentive to reach a political solution to the conflict.
The de-escalation could be seen as an another unpopular move by an already unpopular president. Yet it also holds the promise of resurrection for Santos if it leads to a breakthrough for a final agreement, which Colombians still sorely want. Beyond management of public opinion, this military restraint is largely a form of window-dressing, since the underlying incentives to reach a peace deal haven’t changed.
To meet President Santos’s stated goal of concluding a final agreement by the end of the year, a break in the deadlock of the talks is what is really needed, especially substantive progress on the question of justice and punishment for the FARC. To comply with Colombian domestic law and the requirements of the International Criminal Court (ICC), this will have to include some amount of prison time for FARC leaders accused of war crimes (whatever form that may take). To facilitate a bargain, negotiators should also seek alternative punishments short of prison terms for other members of the group, where appropriate. This could include requirements for community service and public works, de-mining, truth-telling, and other arrangements. If the FARC want a deal as badly as they have been signaling, it will not be surprising if they soon come around.
In the photo, international facilitators and negotiators representing the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group take part in a press conference in Havana, Cuba, as the opposing sides announced the new agreement on July 12.
Photo credit: YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images