Colombia Peace Process Update (July 16, 2013)

The period since our last Colombia Peace Process Update (May 20) saw a big step forward in the Havana, Cuba peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. This was followed by several weeks of reduced momentum, marked both by minor crises and encouraging developments.

Land and rural development agreement

On May 26th, at the conclusion of their ninth round of talks, the Colombian government and the FARC announced a breakthrough. After more than six months, they had reached agreement on land and rural development, the first of five points on the negotiating agenda. This is the first time the government and FARC have agreed on a substantive topic in four different negotiating attempts over 30 years.

While the agreement’s text remains secret under the principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” the two sides’ joint statement (EnglishSpanish) indicates that it covers the following:

  • Land access and use. Unproductive lands. Formalization of property. Agricultural frontier and protection of reserve zones.
  • Development programs with a territorial focus.
  • Infrastructure and land improvements.
  • Social development: health, education, housing, eradication of poverty.
  • Stimulus for agrarian production and a solidarity-based, cooperative economy.
  • Technical assistance. Subsidies. Credit. Income generation. Labor formalization. Food and nutrition policies.

A bit more information about what was agreed appears in the negotiators’ first joint “report of activities” (EnglishSpanish), which was published on June 21st.

Foreign governments and international organizations applauded the agreement on the first agenda item. “This is a significant achievement and an important step forward,” reads a statement from the office of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. “This is a positive step in the process to achieve peace in Colombia,” said OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro called the agreement “historic” and “the best peace message that the Bolivarian peoples could receive.” The government of Chile said it “constitutes a very relevant achievement, which has required flexibility and moderation from both sides.” European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton expressed “hopes that this crucial, albeit partial, agreement will add fresh impetus to the Havana negotiations, with a view to the rapid conclusion of a final peace agreement.”

U.S. reactions, too, were positive. U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, on a May 26-27 visit to Colombia, praised the land accord and the FARC-government process, calling them “serious and well designed.” Biden added in a joint appearance with President Santos, “Just as we supported Colombia’s leaders on the battlefield, we support them fully at the negotiating table.” U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Peter Michael McKinley called the accord “an advance that encourages the possibility that these negotiations are going to end the conflict in Colombia.” U.S. State Department Acting Deputy Spokesperson Patrick Ventrell said, “The agreement on land reform is the first ever between the Colombian Government and the FARC, and as such the terms of its – and in terms of its substance it’s a highly positive step forward in the peace negotiation. So we’ve long given our strong support for President Santos and the Colombian Government as they pursue lasting peace and security that the Colombian people deserve.”

Venezuela crisis

The post-accord honeymoon was brief, however, as an argument between the Colombian and Venezuelan governments dominated the period leading up to the mid-June start of talks on political participation. Relations between Bogotá and Caracas, rather hostile when Álvaro Uribe and Hugo Chávez were presidents of their respective countries, warmed in 2010 when incoming President Juan Manuel Santos sought a rapprochement with the Venezuelan government. Venezuela’s leftist government went on to play an instrumental role in getting the FARC to the negotiating table, and is officially one of two “accompanying countries” of the process (along with Chile).

The episode began on May 29, when President Santos agreed to meet in Bogotá with Henrique Capriles, the leader of Venezuela’s political opposition. Capriles narrowly lost Venezuela’s April 14 presidential vote to, and refuses to recognize the election of, President Nicolás Maduro. The Maduro government responded with vehement anger. “I made efforts with the Colombian guerrillas to achieve peace in Colombia. Now they’re going to pay us like this, with betrayal,” Maduro said. “The situation … obliges us to review Venezuela’s participation as a facilitator in this peace accord,” said Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elías Jaua. Venezuela recalled its envoy to the talks for “consultations” in Caracas.

FARC negotiators declared themselves to be “worried, very worried” on June 1, and wrote on June 7 that the dialogues were “in limbo” due to Venezuela’s temporary absence.

By then, however, tensions between Colombia and Venezuela were diminishing. “The Colombian armed conflict remains, and we are dedicated, beyond our differences, beyond the current conjuncture, to bring the eradication of this last focus of violence,” Jaua said on June 4. By June 12 Venezuela’s envoy to the talks, OAS Ambassador Roy Chaderton, had returned to Havana. “It would be a historic crime to deny Colombia the opportunity to reconcile,” Chaderton said on June 23.

Two rounds of talks, little agreement

The Colombian government and FARC negotiators went on to hold two ten-day rounds of talks in Havana (June 11-21 and July 1-9) on the second agenda topic, “political participation,” which includes three sub-points:

  • Rights and guarantees for political opposition, especially for post-peace accord political movements. Access to the media.
  • Democratic mechanisms for citizen participation, including direct participation.
  • Promoting greater participation in the political process, especially for the most vulnerable populations.

As difficult as the land and rural development agenda topic was, noted Colombia’s Semana newsmagazine, “the political participation issue may be even thornier.” Indeed, there is little progress yet to report. The guerrilla-government joint communiqué issued on July 9, after the eleventh round concluded, noted simply, “Each side presented its general vision on political participation, beginning with the issue of security guarantees for the opposition, as an essential element to build a final accord.”

A central difficulty appears to be diverging views about what this agenda item’s sub-topics mean. On June 19, the FARC began issuing a series of documents laying out its “10 minimal proposals” for the political participation agenda topic. The guerrillas’ demands are ambitious. They include doing away with presidentialism; abolishing the House of Representatives and replacing it with a “Territorial Chamber”; creating a new branch of government called “Popular Power”; and restructuring the armed forces, the tax system, and the central bank.

The Colombian government has repeatedly rejected these topics as beyond the scope of the agreed-upon agenda, calling on the guerrillas to pursue them through the political process after the accord is reached.

Constitutional convention

The demand upon which the FARC has insisted most strongly is a Constituent Assembly: an elected body that would rewrite Colombia’s constitution after a peace accord is reached. Guerrilla leaders have repeated this demand, calling it “the key to peace.” On June 11, the first day of the tenth round of talks, the FARC proposed that this constitutional convention take place in 2014, thus delaying for one year Colombia’s March 2014 legislative elections and May 2014 presidential election. Lead government negotiator Humberto De la Calle rejected both proposals: “That [the election delay] won’t happen, a constitutional convention won’t happen.”

De la Calle published a column in the June 16 issue of Colombia’s most-circulated newsmagazine, Semana, laying out the government’s case against the constitutional convention. “This is neither the optimal mechanism, nor the most practical, as it is more burdensome than other tools and doesn’t produce the desired effects.” The convention, he adds, would render the peace accords irrelevant, as its elected members could go well beyond — or completely reverse — what was agreed in Havana.

It is not clear why the FARC are seeking a constitutional convention. It would be a very risky move: the guerrillas are very unpopular in densely populated areas of Colombia, and would be unlikely to win more than a tiny minority of assembly members (though they may seek a number of automatic seats). Meanwhile former President Álvaro Uribe, a fierce opponent of the peace talks, remains quite popular, and his political group would be likely to win many seats: perhaps enough to roll back any of the FARC’s gains at the negotiating table, and maybe even enough to change election rules to allow Uribe to run for another term in office.

FARC leaders may be calculating that, although they would be a minority, Colombia’s elite would be so split on key issues that the ex-guerrillas could cast decisive, tie-breaking votes. The FARC also does not want a deal that appears to be inferior to what the smaller, weaker M-19 guerrilla group got in a 1990 peace process: those ex-guerrillas played a pivotal role in the convention that wrote Colombia’s 1991 constitution.

Instead of a constitutional convention, Colombia’s government is offering a referendum: a popular vote that would cement the peace accords’ commitments into law. The FARC rejects this. In a letter to Semana responding to De la Calle’s column, the group’s negotiators argue, “To submit to referendum an agreement that even in the partial definition of its first point is already more than 20 pages long … would not be practical or technically possible.”

In statements to the press on July 7, FARC negotiator Andrés París appeared to show some heretofore unseen flexibility on the constitutional convention demand. “Neither this point nor any other has to become an unmovable obstacle that impedes the progress of the process,” said París who, according to Medellín’s El Colombiano newspaper, “said that a constitutional convention is not the only way to legalize the peace process.” However, in a July 9 statement marking the end of the eleventh round of talks, the FARC repeated its insistence on a constitutional convention. The government remains firmly against the idea.

Disarmament

Another issue that may prove difficult is whether the FARC will disarm after a peace accord is reached. In past peace processes, the guerrillas have indicated a desire to keep their weapons even after the conflict ends, citing concerns for their own security. At the outset of the current talks, it appeared that the FARC may have been moving away from this position. But now the guerrillas are indicating reluctance to disarm.

Interviewed in Cali’s El País newspaper on June 16th, guerrilla negotiator Andrés París said, “[We are interested in following] the Irish model because principles were established and, for example, they did not turn in weapons.” (The Irish Republican Army did not fully disarm until 2005, seven years after the Good Friday Agreement officially ended the conflict.) París added that the guerrillas have “repeatedly” told the government that “it will never have” a photo of a ceremony in which guerrillas symbolically turn in weapons.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos voiced frustration in a June 23 speech before a march of conflict victims in El Carmen, Bolívar department. “Keep your word! Negotiate over those [agreed agenda] points, play clean, don’t start asking for the impossible, don’t start asking for things that nobody is going to concede, things that aren’t in the accords.” Santos continued, “Now we see that maybe they won’t turn in their weapons. One of the agenda points is precisely that they turn in their weapons because if not, why are we talking?” The President concluded his remarks by reminding the FARC that “the Colombian people’s patience is not unlimited.”

The U.P. is restored

On July 9 the State Council, Colombia’s top administrative tribunal, issued a decision that breathed some oxygen into the “political participation” issue. The magistrates reinstated the legal status of the Patriotic Union party. Founded during a failed mid-1980s peace process and at least initially linked to the FARC, the Patriotic Union saw about 3,000 of its members, candidates, and officeholders murdered in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The party lost its legal charter when it failed to present candidates in the 2002 elections. The State Council ruled that this should not have happened because the party had been illegally forced to the margins by violence.

Catatumbo

During June and July, the peace talks took place amid a backdrop of social protest, particularly a weeks-long series of road blockades and demonstrations carried out by small farmers in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department, in northeastern Colombia near the Venezuelan border. There, thousands of protesters have been demanding an end to aerial herbicide fumigation in coca-growing areas, the establishment of a “peasant reserve zone” to limit the size of landholdings, and more state services. Colombia’s government has met the protesters with high-level attempts to negotiate, but also with heavy force. Violent clashes with protesters (some of whom themselves have employed violence) have killed four Catatumbo protesters.

As Catatumbo is a zone with much illegal armed group presence (FARC, National Liberation Army [ELN], and a tiny remnant of the otherwise demobilized EPL guerrillas), some Colombian government officials accuse the FARC and others of instigating the protests. Interior Minister Fernando Carrillo accused the FARC of “seeking to influence the process in Havana, and that is something we are not going to permit.” In a July 8 statement, the FARC negotiators in Havana expressed support for the Catatumbo protesters and denied that they have infiltrated them. However, journalists from Colombia’s Semana newsmagazine reported that while the protesters’ grievances are real and guerrillas are certainly not in charge, “we could confirm that many campesinos have been pushed into mobilization by the guerrillas.”

“Please, listen to the campesinos of Catatumbo; don’t repress them, don’t kill them, don’t criminalize them with the same old frame-up that they’re guerrillas,” said FARC negotiator Iván Márquez. President Santos replied: “It’s a stupid move, because with those messages, what they [the FARC] are doing is proving that those demonstrations were infiltrated by the guerrillas.”

A FARC-ELN partnership?

The July 1 start of the FARC talks’ eleventh round was accompanied by a new guerrilla announcement. The FARC and Colombia’s smaller but similarly long-lived guerrilla group, the ELN, released two joint communiqués indicating that the groups’ top leaders had held a “summit” somewhere in Colombia. At this meeting, these statements report, the FARC and ELN agreed to put behind past disputes (including a late-2000s conflict that claimed hundreds of lives in Arauca department), and to work for “unity of all political and social forces working to carry out profound changes in society.” The groups say that “a political solution to the social and armed conflict” is part of their “strategic horizon.” The ELN, notes the Colombian investigative website La Silla Vacía, appears to endorse the FARC’s call for a constitutional convention. Speaking to reporters in Havana, FARC negotiator Pablo Catatumbo said, “We will do everything we can so that talks between our sister organization and the government begin.”

It remains far from clear, however, how the ELN might be incorporated into talks. Joining the ongoing FARC talks at the same table, mid-agenda, might prove unwieldy and further slow down a process that is already not moving at great speed. A separate, parallel negotiating table, however, would give the guerrillas less leverage and create pressure on the government to appear to give both groups “equal treatment” despite their unequal strength.

Even if this could be worked out, two more immediate obstacles remain: resource policy and kidnapping. The ELN’s banner issue — as land is to the FARC — is Colombia’s policy toward mining and energy investment. This is a topic of central economic importance, accounting for much of Colombia’s current export revenue. The Santos government convinced the FARC to exclude mining and energy from the agenda of the Havana dialogues. But for the ELN it is probably the most important issue, and it is difficult to imagine a political negotiation that excludes it.

On kidnapping, President Santos has stated several times that talks with the ELN — a group that pioneered kidnapping for ransom as a fundraising tactic — will not start until the group releases all of its captives. In Arauca on July 4 (the group’s 49th anniversary), the ELN released an army corporal, Carlos Fabián Huertas, whom it had captured during an attack on a military column in mid-May. President Santos called the release “a gesture in the right direction.”

But the ELN continues to hold a Canadian mining company manager whom it kidnapped in Bolívar in January. Talks with the government will not begin until Jernoc Wobert is released. On July 11, though, in letters to President Santos and the Colombians for Peace civil-society group, the guerrillas reiterated their refusal to free Wobert. The ELN continues to insist that Wobert’s company first renounce four mining titles that it claims were obtained illegally.

Other indications of foreign support

The peace talks received an outpouring of international expressions of support after the May 26th accord on land and rural development. Since then, backing has been more sporadic, but the following examples stand out.

  • UK Prime Minister David Cameron expressed “great support for the peace process and said that we must persevere, because it is not easy,” President Santos reported after meeting with Cameron in London on June 6. “I congratulated the President on progress in the peace talks with the FARC and looked forward to seeing more progress on this, and on human rights concerns, in the future,” read a statement from UK Foreign Minister William Hague.
  • “We will keep supporting [the peace talks] in any way that we can be of use,” said the foreign minister of Chile, Alfredo Moreno, during a June 27 meeting with Colombian Foreign Minister María Angela Holguín.
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry “expressed his enormous respect for the peace process in Colombia and highlighted the advances of the country, the work and leadership of President Santos to achieve a much safer and prosperous country,” according to a Colombian Foreign Ministry readout of a June 7 meeting, at the OAS General Assembly in Guatemala, between Kerry and Colombian Foreign Minister Holguín.

The timeline

A twelfth round of talks between the FARC and the Colombian government is to begin in Havana on July 22nd. “If there is sufficient political will, we can achieve an agreement by the end of the year … as long as there is a wish to advance,” President Santos said on July 3. The FARC may not be in as much of a hurry, however. Guerrilla leaders continue to state that they “don’t want an ‘express process.’”

“We are certain that the five-decade long Colombian armed conflict is nearing an end,” FARC negotiator Iván Márquez told Colombia’s RCN television network on July 15. “It is possible [to reach an agreement by November]. But to achieve peace you need time. A bad peace deal is worse than war.”

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