Colombia’s Last Chance for Peace
The conflict-weary country had all but given up on the FARC peace process. Will the government’s new agreement to de-escalate bring renewed faith — or just more skepticism?
In his address to the nation Sunday night, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had a tough task. His aim was to convince increasingly skeptical Colombians that there was a “new light of hope” in his government’s effort to strike a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country’s main rebel group — an effort that many have come to see as futile.
Just a week ago, at the peace talks in Havana, Santos’s chief negotiator Humberto de la Calle, had made sobering comments in a much-publicized interview, in which he recognized that most Colombians understandably did not believe in a peace process that, as he put it, “was coming to an end, for better or worse.” After all, Santos had said at the outset that negotiations with the FARC would be a matter of months; they’ve now dragged on for nearly three years. Sporadic violence has raised doubts about whether FARC negotiators even have control over various columns of the group, scattered about vast territory. A severe setback came in April, when the FARC, having declared an indefinite cease-fire last December, killed 11 soldiers in Cauca, a province in southern Colombia. Intensified government bombing ensued, followed by relentless FARC attacks on the country’s infrastructure, with significant damage in the poorest regions. For many Colombians, the surge in violence revealed that the process was not serious and that, as in previous peace efforts, the FARC was essentially playing games.
Santos has invested enormous political capital and staked his presidency on ending the country’s half-century armed conflict that has claimed over 200,000 lives. To salvage a process that had every sign of being on life-support, Santos, facing plummeting approval ratings, unveiled an agreement under which the government would scale back some of its military operations provided that the FARC adheres to another unilateral cease-fire beginning on July 20. For the first time since the process was launched in 2012, Santos has set a definite time frame, declaring that his government will evaluate the FARC’s commitment over a four-month period. Sensitive to public opinion (especially that of the armed forces) and trying to demonstrate that it has the upper hand, the government has stressed that this is not a bilateral cease-fire — a concession that the Santos government has consistently ruled out — but rather, progress contingent on the FARC’s good behavior.
At the same time, both the government and the FARC agreed that they would energize and accelerate the talks and seek to strike a final deal. While the process has apparently made some progress, including on land reform issues promoting social and economic development and the drug trafficking that has fueled the conflict, the principal sticking point has been the justice question, and whether the FARC will actually be punished for their crimes. While Colombian public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of bringing FARC members to court — 80 percent of Colombians think the FARC should do jail time — FARC leaders continue to see themselves as victims of a repressive government and revolutionaries committed to a just cause. From the outset of the process, this has been the fundamental issue to resolve before there can be a definitive bilateral cease-fire and a final agreement — which Santos has said he plans to submit to a popular vote — to end the longstanding conflict. There has been a great deal of talk about “transitional justice” and possible formulas for a final accord, but the precise terms have proved elusive. There are reports that, privately, the FARC have accepted the idea of punishment, but under conditions that are unacceptable to the government.
It is unclear whether Santos’s effort to boost public confidence in the peace process will work. The country is politically polarized on the FARC, with Sen. Alvaro Uribe, a former two-term president, leading the opposition and championing a hard-line approach that would rely on military pressure and more stringent terms on the group. Critics maintain that Santos’s low approval ratings have left him little margin to maneuver and that discontinuing the peace process was not an option. His weakened political position, they argue, forced concessions: The agreement to de-escalate military operations will be costly to the government tactically, enabling the FARC to regroup, and from their perspective, looks an awful lot like a bilateral cease-fire. And the critics have little faith in the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, which would be tasked (alongside the United Nations) with verifying and monitoring the accord.
Many supporters of the peace process, however, including most commentators and a broad spectrum of political figures and journalists, are more hopeful and interpret Sunday’s announcement as a sign that there is still strong interest and will on both sides to reach a deal, and that the process has now entered its final phase. But even those who are more “optimistic” tend to fall into two camps. The first believes that an agreement will be accompanied by an important reduction in violence and a series of meaningful reforms that, if properly implemented, could over time usher in major transformations in Colombia. But another camp thinks the incentives to finalize an agreement are more about political expediency, and it will be hard to discern much change in the long term. Santos needs a deal for his legacy — he wants to be seen as the man who ended the hemisphere’s only ongoing armed conflict — while the FARC have been so weakened militarily and discredited politically that they have no alternative but to reach an accord. Even if there is a deal, public confidence in the government’s ability to capitalize on a potential “peace dividend” is low, while the FARC are seen as lacking discipline and seriousness.
Still, while polls show that Colombians are increasingly impatient with a seemingly interminable peace process, at the same time, they overwhelmingly want the costly conflict to end. The question is on which and whose terms. That will now be put to a test — this is a make or break moment. FARC compliance with its declared unilateral cease-fire will be watched closely, as will its eventual position on “transitional justice.” Santos has gone about as far as politically possible with the announced de-escalation on the government’s side. As such, the fate of the negotiations rests almost entirely with the FARC. The guerrillas have a chance — perhaps their last one — to show a nation utterly exhausted and frustrated that peace is still possible.
Photo credit: LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images
Michael Shifter is the president of the Inter-American Dialogue.