In the weeks before Christmas 2001, the FARC broke Colombia’s heart.
Andrés Felipe Pérez, a 12-year-old boy in a Bogotá hospital’s cancer ward, transfixed the country with his dying wish: to say farewell to his father. Police Corporal Norberto Pérez had spent the previous two years as one of dozens whom the FARC were holding hostage in Colombia’s jungles. As three-year-old peace talks with the government floundered, the guerrillas refused Andrés Felipe’s dying wish. The boy died a week before Christmas. He never saw his father. The next year, months after the peace talks’ collapse, FARC captors killed Corporal Pérez during an escape attempt.
A month ago, the FARC had another military captive, a far bigger prize: a Colombian Army general who wandered right into the guerrillas’ clutches. This time, though, the FARC let him go after just two weeks. Gen. Rubén Darío Alzate will spend Christmas at home with his family.
Why did the guerrillas’ behavior shift so radically? Again, they are in peace negotiations with the Colombian government. But this time, unlike 2001, they really don’t want them to end. A government suspension of the talks forced the guerrillas to choose between holding a general and continuing to talk peace. They chose peace.
This would seem like ironclad proof that today’s peace process is for real. Colombia has tried and failed to negotiate with the FARC three times in the past thirty years. But the current attempt in Havana, with three of six agenda items concluded in an orderly manner, might really be the one that ends fifty years of fighting.
Still, Colombian public opinion isn’t so sure. While polls show a clear majority of Colombians supporting the dialogues, a similar majority still doubts they will succeed.
The FARC’s more flexible current stance owes much to Colombia’s military buildup of the past 15 years, which received substantial U.S. support. It drove the guerrillas from most population centers, reduced their ranks by more than half to about 7,000 today, and killed several top, mostly hard-line leaders.
The defense minister who oversaw some of this offensive’s peak years became president in 2010. Juan Manuel Santos decided that even though a decade of military campaigning had weakened the guerrillas, their final battlefield defeat was still unseeably distant.
Santos calculated that it made sense to negotiate now rather than wait several more years for the FARC to be still weaker. These would be more years with thousands of lives lost, and billions of scarce dollars lost to defense spending and spooked investors.
Ironically, those most opposed to the ongoing negotiations–those doing the most to sow doubt and pessimism at home–are the very leaders whose military offensive helped bring the FARC to the table. Former Presidents Andrés Pastrana (1998–2002) and Álvaro Uribe (2002–2010) criticize the Havana talks constantly in the media, on Twitter, and (in now-Senator Uribe’s case) in the legislature. Skepticism is also high within the country’s main business and agroindustrial organizations. According to reports in Colombian media, opposition is also high within the armed forces—a powerful actor that nearly doubled in size since the 1990s.
These individuals and sectors prefer a discussion of surrender terms–starting with the guerrillas unilaterally declaring a ceasefire–instead of the economic and political reforms on the agenda to which President Santos agreed. In his June reelection bid, Santos’s campaign countered that getting the FARC to the table on those terms would require more years of all-out war.
Santos won, narrowly. But it will be nearly impossible for Colombia to ratify or implement a peace accord without the political opposition, and the armed forces, “inside the tent.” They may always be critical of the talks, but they must become supportively critical.
The best argument with which to bring them in got stronger with Gen. Alzate’s release. It grew even stronger this week with the FARC’s declaration of a unilateral, indefinite, but conditioned cease-fire, and with its apology—using unusually heartfelt language—for a 2002 massacre.
That argument is, simply, “this process is for real.”
It offers the quickest way to end the FARC as a generator of violence in Colombia. And with international accompaniment, it has built so much momentum and discipline that the word “irreversible” is beginning to fit.
The United States can help get that message to these audiences in Colombia. After years of backing for the country’s war effort and free trade deal, Obama administration officials, diplomats, U.S. Southern Command, and investors have deep contacts with some of Colombia’s most prominent peace skeptics. It’s time to encourage them, if not to embrace the process enthusiastically, then at least to recognize its inevitability and be pragmatic.
This conflict has already broken enough hearts in Colombia. It makes no sense to prolong it when talks offer a credible way out.