Colombia Peace Process Update (March 8, 2013)

By Adam Isacson, WOLA Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy

Since our January 26 Colombia peace process update, negotiators from the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group have held two rounds of talks in Havana. Round five lasted from January 31 to February 10. Round six ran from February 18 to March 1.

The negotiators continue to discuss the first agenda item: land and rural development. In a joint communiqué on March 1, the two sides indicated substantial progress: “We have advanced in the construction of an accord on the following issues: land access and use; unproductive lands; formalization of property; agricultural frontier; and protection of [smallholder] reserve zones.” The daily El Espectador reported, “The news, to the extent known, is good: there is now a basic document, written jointly by the two negotiating teams, with about five pages on which accords have been reached.”

“With the FARC we have passed from convergences to accords about a profound process of rural development,” said the government’s chief negotiator, former Vice President Humberto de la Calle, in a largely upbeat statement. However, he added, “We know we are in a key moment of the dialogues where results are required, that is, accords on the agrarian issue that will allow us to continue with the discussion of the other points of the agreed agenda.” Five other points on this agenda remain, most of them less complicated than the land issue: political participation, ending the conflict, drug policy, victims’ rights, and implementation logistics.

This moment followed a period of tension in the peace talks, sparked by the FARC’s January 25 capture of two Colombian policemen, Víctor Alfonso González and Cristian Camilo Yate, in the southwestern department (province) of Valle del Cauca. On January 29, the guerrillas issued a statement affirming their claim to have abandoned kidnapping for ransom, but reiterating their intention to continue holding security-force members whom they capture as “prisoners of war.”

The policemen’s capture sent the talks into their most serious crisis to date. “Things must be called by their names,” lead government negotiator De la Calle said on January 30. “A kidnapping is a kidnapping, it doesn’t matter whom the victim is.” Added President Juan Manuel Santos, “If the FARC believe that through kidnappings, which they promised that they wouldn’t carry out, they’re going to try to pressure the government to agree to what they aspire to, a cease-fire within the dialogue process, then they’re wrong! To the contrary!”

For reasons that remain unclear — though messages from government negotiators in Havana, especially Gen. Oscar Naranjo, a former National Police chief, likely played a role — the FARC announced on February 2 that they would release the two policemen, plus a soldier whom they had also captured. By February 15, all three had been delivered to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the non-governmental group Colombians for Peace.

Still, the policemen’s captivity, which brought back memories of the FARC’s past practices of kidnapping thousands of civilians for ransom, took a heavy toll on public opinion. So did an uptick in FARC attacks following the guerrillas’ two-month unilateral cease-fire, which ended on January 20th. Headline-making hostilities included the February 5 detonation of two car bombs in Caloto, Cauca, which killed two people and wounded several more.

President Santos insisted on February 11 that although “there has been more noise in the media,” the frequency of FARC attacks had not increased. But a February 18 Datexco poll showed 67.34% of Colombians surveyed believing that the FARC peace process would not be successful. On February 25, the bimonthly Gallup poll showed the percentage of Colombians believing that the talks will end the conflict with the FARC falling to 36, from 43 in December. The percentage of Colombian respondents saying they supported the FARC talks fell to 62, from 71 in December. President Santos’s favorability rating, meanwhile, fell to 44 percent, from 53 percent in December. Gallup respondents gave ex-President Álvaro Uribe, who has been actively opposing the talks, a 65 percent favorability rating.

Tensions rose further with President Santos’s February 20th appearance in San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá, part of the zone that hosted peace talks which failed eleven years earlier that same day. The President was there to distribute to farmers lands recovered from the FARC. Maximum FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez issued a statement complaining that President Santos’s speech in San Vicente made no mention of the current peace process. “While it’s true that the dialogues have made some important advances toward accords, official attitudes… threaten to mire it in a swamp,” read the statement. “Let’s get it out of there now, Santos. This narrow and calculated conception of the process threatens to drown it. Let’s save it.”

“[T]he people should understand that we are conversing in the midst of conflict, that this is difficult, often contradictory, but that it is the route that we deliberately chose,” said President Santos on February 23, controversially adding, “At this moment I would have no problem getting up from the table and saying that this is over. But I’m going to make every possible effort so that this doesn’t happen, because just imagine Colombia without that conflict.” On February 26th, FARC negotiators responded with a statement calling on the government not to “kick aside” (patear) the negotiating table.

This all seemed to contradict the mood at the table in Havana, where negotiators appear to be making steady progress toward an accord. In a February 3 statement condemning what it characterized as “the ultra-right wing’s campaign against the Havana peace process,” FARC negotiators insisted, “The conversations at the table are proceeding normally, nobody has gotten up or formally threatened to leave.” The talks are moving forward “at the speed of a bullet train,” FARC negotiator Rodrigo Granda added on February 10. “We’ve put together at least two or more pages of an agreement, and this is an advance that had not been achieved in previous processes,” lead FARC negotiator Iván Márquez told Semana magazine columnist María Jimena Duzán on February 24. (As mentioned above, El Espectador cited a figure of five pages a few days later.)

At the March 1 conclusion of the sixth round of talks, the mood was slightly better. On March 3-4, with government permission, a group of Colombian legislators, including Senate President Roy Barreras and members of both houses’ Peace Committees, visited Havana, where they met with both sides’ negotiators. “After hearing Colombians’ concerns throughout the country, we decided it was time to transmit these doubts and concerns about the timeframe of the process to the negotiators on both sides of the table,” said Barreras. FARC negotiator Rodrigo Granda told reporters that following a successful peace process, FARC leaders would not run for office, at least not under the current “electoral regime,” which in his view is stacked against leftist candidates.

The March 5 death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez then added a measure of uncertainty to the process. Venezuela, along with Chile, is officially designated an “accompanying country” of the peace process, and President Chávez had played an important behind-the-scenes role in convincing the FARC to take part. According to Semana journalist María Jimena Duzán, who spent a week in Havana in February, “Who really convinced the FARC to allow Jaramillo [FARC Eastern Bloc chief Mauricio Jaramillo, the guerrillas’ chief negotiator during the dialogues’ agenda-building phase] to board that helicopter [to Havana] was President Chávez himself. The FARC delegates with whom I spoke in Havana confirmed that to me.”

“These were his words before beginning his last fatal trip to Havana.’I believe that with the guarantees that the Colombian government offers and that Colombian society offers … the FARC can enter into a political process without arms. … I hope that all the comandantes at the FARC’s various levels, and its combatants and fronts, join in this process, and I hope that they arrive at the best possible accord, and I hope that we can see the day in which peace is signed in Colombia. On that day there will be celebration in Venezuela and in the whole continent.’”

In an analysis, Juanita Leon of the Colombian politics website La Silla Vacía outlined three possible scenarios for Venezuela’s role post-Chávez:

  1. Interim President Nicolás Maduro is reelected easily, and continues Venezuela’s current facilitating role.
  2. Divisions appear in the pro-Chávez governing bloc, leading Maduro to pressure for the FARC to speed the negotiation.
  3. (The nightmare scenario:) The pro-Chávez bloc sees itself as seriously threatened, and a faction of it seeks the FARC’s help to strengthen its resistance.

The seventh round of talks is to begin on Monday, March 11 in Havana.

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