By Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security
Negotiators from Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas held a third round of talks in Havana, Cuba on January 14-24. The next round is to begin on January 31.
The negotiators are discussing the first of five topics on the talks’ agenda: land and rural development policy. Topics to follow are the guerrillas’ future participation in politics; demobilization and post-conflict; drug policy; and victims’ rights.
We know very few details about what is actually being discussed in Havana. Both sides are respecting the negotiations’ secrecy, avoiding having their content aired before the media. Leaks have been extremely scarce. The dialogues’ disciplined conduct, along with a general atmosphere of seriousness and collegiality, increases confidence that these dialogues may succeed. It also reflects well on the role of diplomats from Norway and Cuba, the two “guarantor” countries the process.
The dialogues’ pace, however, has caused some concern. After the last round of talks ended, FARC negotiator “Jesús Santrich” said that the guerrillas were seeing “concrete results,” and that the talks were advancing at a rapid “mambo rhythm.” Chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle acknowledged that there have been “convergences” on some issues, but that “notable differences” remain. Before the last round of talks began, de la Calle had told reporters, “We need a faster pace.” In late December, Interior Minister Fernando Carrillo said that the government expected to be done with the land issue, and to have moved on to the second negotiation topic, by Easter week (late March). De la Calle quickly contradicted him, clarifying that the Santos administration had not set an end date for the negotiating topic. For his part, President Juan Manuel Santos has said that he is unwilling to extend the FARC talks beyond November 2013. A mid-December Gallup poll found 71 percent of Colombians supporting the process, but only 43 percent believing that an accord will actually be reached. 54 percent were “pessimistic.”
January 20 saw the FARC end a two-month unilateral “holiday” cease-fire, with attacks on a pipeline in Putumayo and a police station in Norte de Santander, and the murder of an indigenous leader in Cauca. The FARC have not carried out a large scale offensive, despite Colombian National Police predictions that they were preparing a “terrorist wave” after January 20th. During the two months, the FARC mostly respected the truce. Colombia’s human rights ombudsman said that the FARC carried out 57 attacks during the two months. The Bogotá-based Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris think-tank counted 7 to 15 attacks, a nearly 90 percent reduction from the FARC’s usual pace. According to President Santos,
“The truth is that there was an important reduction in this organization’s number of actions, there was a very important reduction in the number of our soldiers and police killed or wounded. With that we can conclude that there was compliance [with the cease-fire]. But a relative compliance, because there were also actions.”
The government did not join in the FARC’s cease-fire. During the two months, Colombia’s armed forces bombed FARC encampments in Nariño and Antioquia, killing dozens of guerrilla fighters. The government continues to reject repeated FARC requests for a bilateral cease-fire. “We want peace, but not at any cost,” said chief government negotiator de la Calle. “Not at the cost of, as a result of the conversations, the guerrillas strengthening themselves to continue the war.”
The current negotiation topic, land and rural development, is difficult and complicated, underlying much of the conflict with a 49-year-old guerrilla group whose base is almost entirely rural. In five recent communiqués (1) (2) (3) (4) (5), the guerrillas laid out ten proposals for land and rural development that, for the most part, cannot be described as radical — in fact, observers note, many of the proposals dovetail with the Santos government’s own positions. While both sides seem to share a concern for Colombia’s remarkably high land concentration (1.15 percent of landholders own 52 percent of agricultural land), they disagree about what to do about it. The FARC would prefer to take unproductive land from cattle ranchers, who own approximately 40 million hectares in Colombia (the country’s total surface area is 113 million hectares; a hectare is 2.5 acres). “From this big balloon of land, at least 20 million hectares could be taken,” chief FARC negotiator Iván Marquez said. The government would prefer to distribute unused land in state hands, or land seized from narcotraffickers, and minimize confrontation with the country’s politically powerful cattle ranchers.
The country’s cattle-rancher federation, FEDEGAN, senses that it has the most to lose from any land redistribution, and has been one of the most vociferous critics of the peace talks so far. FEDEGAN made a point of boycotting a December forum, cosponsored by UNDP and Colombia’s National University, designed to channel civil-society proposals for the negotiators to consider. More than 1,300 participants in that forum produced 546 proposals.
If the talks complete the five points on the agenda, there is a sixth and final issue: how to cement the final accord into Colombian law. The government says it favors a public referendum to approve what was agreed at the negotiating table. The FARC, however, have been calling for a “constituent assembly,” in which representatives, chosen by voters, rewrite Colombia’s constitution. The government rejects this. It is unclear why the FARC is pushing for this, given the strong showing that Colombia’s right wing has enjoyed in recent elections: the likelihood of a conservative majority rewriting the country’s constitution would be high.
No negotiations are currently occurring with Colombia’s other 49-year-old guerrilla group, the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN). In early December, though, maximum ELN leader Nicolás Rodríguez acknowledged that the group has engaged in contacts with the Santos government. On January 18, after kidnapping five mining workers in Bolívar, the ELN released a video in which Rodríguez asked, “Why aren’t we at the table? That is a question for President Santos.”
Foreign governments’ statements about the talks have been uniformly supportive. “We support the effort. We are impressed by the way that President Santos and his team have organized the conversations,” said U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough. “We, the United States, are not a part of Colombia’s peace process, although we support President Santos’ efforts because we believe that it is extremely important that the Colombian people can finally live in peace and security,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Mike Hammer. “We support the efforts of President Santos in Colombia and the peace process. We have great confidence in President Santos and we are ready, with other countries in the international community, to help the Colombian government to implement it,” said Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson. “I’m sure that my government and many of its leaders support the current process,” said former U.S. President Jimmy Carter during a January 12 visit to Bogotá. “We fully support this process, and should Colombia consider it useful, we are willing to contribute,” said Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa said that the FARC talks are “one of the happiest pieces of news in recent decades for our Americas.” In mid-January, representatives of the two “accompanying” countries in the process, Venezuela and Cuba, met with and received an update from both negotiating teams.
Looking toward later in 2013, the fourth topic on the negotiating agenda, drug policy, could pose challenges for Washington. President Santos has been more critical of the current, U.S.-backed anti-drug approach. For its part, the FARC wants sweeping changes in drug policy; within its ten rural development proposals is a call for the coca leaf to be declared legal for “medical, therapeutic, or cultural purposes. The sides may agree on something — such as limits on forced eradication or aerial herbicide fumigation — that will require some real flexibility from the United States.