Colombia’s Peace Talks: The End of the Beginning

By Aaron T. Bell

Americas Quarterly / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Americas Quarterly / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Recent events suggest that, as peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas resume in Cuba later this month, substantial progress toward an agreement is at hand.  Talks were suspended in November when a Colombian general and two lawyers were kidnapped under circumstances that remain unclear, but cooler heads prevailed and the three were quickly released.  The FARC announced an indefinite unilateral cease-fire in late December and, in the first such act taken by either side, acknowledged their responsibility for a 2002 civilian massacre in the town of Bojayá and asked for forgiveness from victims.  President Juan Manuel Santos has been reluctant to ease military pressure on the guerrillas, but the FARC’s show of good faith led him to call on government negotiators last week to prioritize the arrangement of a bilateral cease-fire.  Santos has encouraged negotiators to accelerate talks so that a public referendum on the peace accords can be held concurrent with October’s local elections.

A final agreement may still be several months off as negotiators work through the complexities of victim compensation and a transitional justice system, but the effects of negotiations are already being felt in Colombia.  Observers from the Centro de Recursos para el Análisis de Conflictos reported the lowest level of violence related to the armed conflict in 30 years during the first three weeks of the FARC’s cease-fire. This news was complemented by reports that Colombia’s murder rate hit a 30-year low in 2014, thanks in part to truces brokered among the country’s largest criminal gangs.  The success of the government’s negotiations with the FARC appears to be spilling over into the armed conflict with the ELN guerrillas as well.  At the beginning of 2015 the ELN announced willingness to enter into peace talks like those with the FARC, and they strongly implied that such talks would lead them to lay down their arms.  A six-point agenda for negotiations was publicly announced this past weekend, and a cease-fire may not be far behind.  In economic terms, an end to insurgent violence may spell much-needed relief for Colombia’s oil industry, a frequent target for guerrilla sabotage over the years, which is now reeling from falling oil prices.  Negotiations have also procured European political and financial support for Colombia.  Beginning this month, the European Union will begin funding a five-year, $86 million program to bolster small-scale producers and reduce rural inequality, and other potential funding may result from a European tour by Santos last fall.  Germany pledged $95 million in loans to follow peace agreements, and the EU and several member nations pledged funding for post-conflict reconstruction projects.

While the Santos government and the FARC appear to be entering the endgame of peace negotiations, the process of resolving the underlying conditions that have fueled decades of conflict in Colombia will be long and difficult.  The FARC was unhappy with the government’s unilateral decision to implement a peace referendum, preferring instead a constituent assembly that would give greater representation to traditionally marginalized groups in Colombian society.  Political inclusion is a substantial concern given both Colombia’s history and the attitude of right-wing opponents of negotiations.  Among the groups gearing up for a substantial run in the October elections is the Centro Democrático, the party of former president Álvaro Uribe, which took Santos to a second round of voting in last summer’s presidential elections.  Uribe claimed recently that the FARC – with Santos’s support – is using the threat of terrorism and the allure of peace to take power through elections in 2018 and even eventually establish a “totalitarian government.”  Land reform is another major concern.  Skewed land distribution has traditionally been a major source of social unrest and has worsened over the last 50 years of fighting.  Amnesty International and Oxfam have identified serious obstacles to resolving the problem and it will be difficult to ensure that large multinationals won’t benefit disproportionately from redistribution schemes.  The government and the guerrillas both deserve praise for their progress, but winning a lasting peace will require continued cooperation in reforming an ingrained system of inequality and exclusion.

January 20, 2015

Colombia: President Santos’s Challenges

By Maribel Vasquez

President Santos Calderón / Photo credit: Agência Brasil, Creative Commons

President Santos Calderón / Photo credit: Agência Brasil, Creative Commons License

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has yet to announce whether he will seek a second four-year term in May, but with the November deadline fast approaching for him to declare his candidacy, many Colombians are expressing dissatisfaction with his performance. Three years after taking office, and after a protracted honeymoon period, Santos’s approval ratings dropped to a dismal 21 percent several weeks ago. (A more recent poll surged to 41 percent but the rollercoaster ride appears likely to continue.) Colombia has experienced a wave of strikes and protests – perhaps reflecting a phenomenon evident from Brazil to Chile to Peru by which popular sentiment nosedives despite steady economic growth because much of the population is left out and institutions fail to respond to needs. The Santos administration has governed more democratically than his predecessor and shown greater commitment to the rule of law and accountability. Unlike the Clintonian dictum that “It’s the economy, stupid,” Colombia’s long-standing adage has been that “La economía va bien, el país va mal.”

The stalled peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are also to blame for Santos’s dwindling public support. On October 13th, the 15th round of negotiations concluded in Havana without visible progress towards an agreement. (Talks are set to resume next week.) The agenda has six major points agreed to by both sides: land reform, political participation, disarmament, illicit drugs, rights of the victims, and implementation of an eventual peace accord. To date, agreement has been reached on only land reform and rural development. A number of thorny issues persist, including the FARC’s demand that a constituent assembly be convened to incorporate the peace deals into the country’s constitution – which the government has rejected.  In the latest development, the government also turned down the FARC’s call to have civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson act as mediator in the release of Kevin Scott Sutay, a former U.S. marine abducted by the FARC earlier this year. Criticism of Santos’s handling of the talks is due in part to perennial public concern that the FARC is stalling the peace talks to regroup and rebuild its capabilities.

President Santos has staked his political legacy on ending Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict. Success or failure of the peace talks will define his presidency for many Colombians, and failure to reach an accord would cast a cloud over his political future. While he has talked tough – saying FARC stalling is wearing out the government and the Colombian people’s patience – President Santos appears in every bit of a hurry to see these negotiations come to a conclusion before the end of the year. Former President Alvaro Uribe and his loyalists in the Centro Democrático (CD) have already blasted what they claim is excessive leniency on the President’s part.  Santos is in a bind: if he rushes the peace talks, he risks making too many concessions and playing into the Uribistas’ hand, while canceling the talks would strip him of the desired distinction of being Colombia’s peace president. The easy road to reelection – effective conclusion of the peace process and greater responsiveness to the country’s widespread malaise – seems remote.  A strong opposition candidate has yet to emerge, however, giving Santos time to rebuild public support. CD frontrunner Francisco Santos’s recent threat to leave the party hints at a split within Uribismo.  The failure of an organized opposition may be the only advantage Santos has at the moment.