By Adam Isacson, WOLA Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy
Since our March 8 Colombia peace process update, negotiators from the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group held one more round of talks. Round seven took place in Havana, Cuba from March 11 to March 21.
The negotiators appear to be near an accord on land and rural development, the first of five substantive agenda items. Before the last round of talks ended, some observers speculated that they would actually complete this accord by the 21st.
But they are not there yet. “We continue to advance in the construction of accords within the first agenda point, although there are still several disagreements remaining,” chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle announced when the round ended. Colombian press noted that the FARC-government negotiators’ joint statement after the seventh round used nearly the same language as their statement after the sixth round.
The biggest unresolved issue appears to be the future extent of “Campesino Reserve Zones,” areas where landholdings are limited in size and restricted to agriculture (and thus excluded to activities like mining). Six such zones legally exist in Colombia, covering 831,000 hectares of land. In the negotiations, the FARC are seeking approval of about fifty more Campesino Reserve Zones, covering 9.5 million hectares (23.5 million acres; Colombia’s entire land area is 113 million hectares). They also appear to be pushing for a degree of administrative autonomy similar to what currently exists for the country’s indigenous territories. Colombia’s government opposes both proposals.
Still, agreement on the land and rural development agenda item may not be far off. Indicative of this is the negotiators’ joint statement, which announces that they have asked the UNDP and Colombia’s National University to host a public forum on the next agenda item, the FARC’s “political participation,” at the end of April. (A similar forum on land and rural development took place in December.)
On March 13, amid a moderately optimistic climate, lead FARC negotiator Iván Márquez told reporters that the guerrillas will do “everything possible” to reach a peace accord before the end of the year — the first time any FARC spokesman had said such a thing. That day, President Santos declared, “I believe that if the pace of the last few weeks is maintained, and that’s what the negotiators tell me, it is perfectly possible to finish the work in months.” Still, with legislative and presidential elections looming in March and May 2014, some question whether that timetable will be fast enough. If the FARC wishes to participate in these elections as a political party, warned Senate President Roy Barreras, the law to enable this must go before the Congress no later than August, which would mean “the government and FARC have between March and July to sign the peace accord.”
March has seen less hostile rhetoric from both sides than February, when tensions rose during the three weeks that the FARC held captive two policemen and a soldier. However Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón, whose frequent verbal attacks on the FARC’s credibility have made him the “bad cop” of Colombia’s cabinet, continued to trade barbs with the guerrillas. After a March 17 military operation in Cauca department dismantled what Colombia’s army called one of the FARC’s principal cocaine processing centers, FARC negotiator Rodrigo Granda denied that the site belonged to the guerrillas. “Those are inventions,” Granda said. “We are a serious, responsible political-military organization. … We aren’t a cartel of narcotraffickers.” Defense Minister Pinzón responded, “It is ridiculous to doubt that the FARC are narcotraffickers.” On March 19, lead FARC negotiator Iván Márquez called Pinzón a “sharpshooter” against peace efforts.
On the U.S. front, the Obama administration continued its rhetorical support for the negotiations. “If peace is achieved, this country has no limits,” said U.S. Ambassador Peter Michael McKinley at a March 19 event commemorating the U.S.-Colombia trade agreement. “The fact is, the U.S. government supports every effort to negotiate an end to the Colombian internal conflict.” Meanwhile two members of the U.S. Congress began circulating a letter in support of the talks. “The United States can help support the peace process by offering an aid package designed for peace, reorienting aid that for the last dozen years has supported a government at war,” reads the missive from Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) and Rep. Janice Schakowsky (D-Illinois), which as of this writing has a growing list of congressional signatories.
Colombia’s neighbors also remained supportive of the process. “We will do everything we have to do, and beyond, to help Colombia to a process of peace, of reconciliation,” Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s acting president and ruling-party candidate for April 14 presidential elections, said on March 25th. “For us, the peace dialogues in Colombia are fundamental because they present us with new potential scenarios, for which we must be prepared,” said Ecuador’s defense minister, María Fernanda Espinosa, adding that Ecuador sees a quick resolution of the talks, an “express peace,” as “desirable.”
The second of Colombia’s 1960s-origin guerrilla groups, the National Liberation Army or ELN, remains distant from a formal negotiation despite periodic contacts with the government. “A process is going forward between the compañeros of the FARC and the government, and we’re not even in exploratory dialogues,” maximum ELN leader Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista told the Colombian daily El Espectador. “So it is not possible to talk about a single [negotiating] table” for the two groups.
The eighth round of FARC-government talks is to begin in Havana on April 2. On April 9, pro-peace civil-society groups, the “Marcha Patriótica” political movement, and the mayor of Bogotá are to convene what is expected to be a large march in Colombia’s capital in support of the peace process. “How great that [President] Santos will march with us on April 9!” tweeted Piedad Córdoba, a former senator and leader of the Colombians for Peace organization. President Santos has not confirmed his participation.