Prospects for renewed peace talks in Colombia

Yesterday in Colombia, news leaked – and then President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed – that the Colombian government has been quietly holding talks with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), about how to end nearly 50 years of fighting. This would be the first significant attempt at government-guerrilla dialogue in ten years.

What appears to be happening

In statements corroborated by other news reports, journalist Jorge Enrique Botero revealed that since May, Colombian government and FARC representatives have held exploratory talks in Havana, facilitated by Cuba, Venezuela and Norway. The two sides reportedly agreed Monday to begin a more formal negotiation process, which could begin in Oslo, Norway, in October.

No DMZ: With this agreement to hold talks outside of Colombia, the FARC may have dropped a longtime pre-condition that any dialogues take place in Colombian territory, in an area cleared of military and police presence. This demand for a demilitarized zone, which the Colombian government agreed to during a failed 1998–2002 peace process, made that process unpopular inside Colombia and has been a big obstacle to any initiation of new talks.

Negotiating team: According to news reports, the Colombian government has been represented in these talks by President Santos’s national security advisor, Sergio Jaramillo, a former vice-minister of defense; the environment minister, Frank Pearl, a former director of the government’s program for demobilizing ex-combatants; and the President’s brother, Enrique Santos, a former editor-in-chief of Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper. According to the same news reports, the FARC’s representatives in the talks are Jaime Alberto Parra, alias Mauricio Jaramillo or “El Médico,” a member of the guerrillas’ seven-person Secretariat; Rodrigo Granda, often referred to as the FARC’s “foreign minister,” Luis Alberto Albán, alias “Marcos Calarcá,” who ran the FARC’s international office in Mexico until its 2002 closure; and Jesús Emilio Carvajalino, alias “Andres París,” the guerrillas’ chief spokesman during the 1998–2002 peace talks. It is encouraging to see both sides represented at such a high level. The ultimate success of more “formal” negotiations, however, would require a more diverse negotiating team. Particularly important are a better gender balance and the participation of a retired military officer.

In the public eye: Yesterday’s news, much of which awaits confirmation and clarification, is encouraging for all who wish to see Colombia’s long conflict come to an end. It may not be positive, though, that the talks’ existence has been made public now. In secret, negotiators can cover a lot of ground and complete badly needed preparatory work before the larger national debate begins. If preparations for more formal dialogues are not yet complete, though, the process is now in greater danger. Would-be spoilers will have much more time to sharpen their knives and derail an immature process. Public expectations, in particular for quick results, will begin to mount. And sensitive, unresolved issues about the talks simply cannot be dealt with on camera and before microphones.

Why now?

Until this week, it was widely rumored that the Santos government had been maintaining quiet contacts with the FARC. A common opinion in Colombia, however, held that President Santos would move slowly while applying military pressure on the guerrillas, with talks unlikely before 2013. There are several reasons, though, why talks could be possible now:

  • Both sides are approaching a “hurting stalemate,” in which neither feels victory is imminent and the cost of continued fighting may be greater than the cost of negotiating. Since the last peace process ended in 2002, the FARC has lost territory, membership and strategic initiative, and lost several top leaders. However, an increase in guerrilla activity since about 2008 has fed perceptions in Colombia that security is deteriorating, and undone optimism about the conflict entering a “home stretch.”

  • In part because of security perceptions, President Santos’s approval ratings have declined recently, making his 2014 re-election less certain and perhaps pushing up his timetable for starting talks.

  • The rise in prices of commodities like oil and minerals has led President Santos to refer to extractive industries as a “locomotive of the economy.” However, many potential natural resource reserves are in remote, historically neglected areas under guerrilla control. The Santos government may be calculating that a negotiation to demobilize the FARC offers the quickest path to access these suddenly valuable areas.

Cease of hostilities?

Early in his term, President Santos made clear his primary pre-condition for any negotiations with armed groups: before formal talks can start, any group must first declare a cessation of hostilities. No more attacks on military, civilian or economic targets; no more kidnappings or extortions; no more sowing of landmines or recruitment of minors.

It is not clear from President Santos’s statement (“Over the next few days the results of discussions with the FARC will be made known”) whether the guerrillas will agree to cease hostilities before talks begin. If they do so – even partially – President Santos will be in a strong position. Colombian public opinion, which has been only tepidly supportive of renewed talks, will be quite favorable if the start of dialogues means a pause in FARC offensive activity.

If “formal” dialogues start with no cessation of hostilities, however, public support will be far weaker. Critics of negotiations, among them ex-President Álvaro Uribe, will relentlessly criticize the idea of negotiating amid fighting, and will send pointed messages to the active-duty officer corps about the effect this has on “military morale.”

If fighting and other hostilities continue during talks, as they did during the 1998–2002 process, success will be far harder to attain. Actions on a hot battlefield, especially attacks on civilians, can do enormous damage at the negotiating table. In addition, the desire to show strength at the table gives both sides a big incentive to escalate on the battlefield.

Whether with or without a cessation of hostilities, though, talks are worth pursuing and we wish for the swiftest possible success. Congratulations are due to the Santos government for seizing this opportunity to end one of the world’s oldest internal conflicts.

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