Tag: Crises

The Depth and Solution of the Political Crisis in Colombia

October 21, 2016

After he joined WOLA two weeks ago for our conference on next steps for Colombia’s peace process (untranslated video of the event is here), León Valencia of Bogotá’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation shared with us the following article, a version of which appeared in Spain’s El País newspaper. Here is an English translation.

In it, León lays out three possible scenarios for the fate of the peace process in the post-plebiscite period. The first scenario, which he views as most favorable and gives a 20 percent likelihood, remains possible, but the speech President Juan Manuel Santos gave last night calling “to finish this soon, very soon,” points in the direction of the third scenario (40 percent likelihood).

The Depth and Solution of the Political Crisis in Colombia

By León Valencia

The peace process, its initiatives for political openness and the modernization of the countryside, as well as the inclusion of a progressive agenda for the treatment of ethnic and gender minorities, youth, and families, opened a broad gap between political, economic, and religious elites in Colombia. The most dramatic moments of this rupture were witnessed in the electoral dispute of 2014 and now in the outcome of the plebiscite.

President Santos aimed for peace and for these modern initiatives, and was able to gather support from a vast majority of the political establishment and institutions, with the exception of the Inspector General. Special recognition should be given to the military and police forces. Santos managed to build the accords with the FARC, the left-wing, and the center left-wing, along with trade unions and social organizations. He gained the support of the international community. The primary expression of this political alliance is the peace agreements in Havana. Moreover, decisions like same-sex marriage, the right to adoption by gay couples, the law of reparation of victims and the restitution of lands, and the fight against discrimination of young people due to ethnic or sexual circumstances, are signs of democratic openness.

Those left out of these alliances and negotiations include former President Uribe and his followers, the Conservative Party, the majority of the churches, the ELN, business sectors like the Ardila Lulle group, and the majority of landowners, who were all against the proposed changes.

These right-wing opposition structures managed to win the plebiscite by a thin margin, and with this achievement they reopened the peace negotiation, by questioning deeply the alliances established during Santos’s second term. Once again, they engaged in the discussion and definition of the country’s future through a national proposal that would rely on the renegotiation of the accords with the FARC.

Santos has kept intact the ability to ratify the peace accord, despite the presidential powers granted by the Colombian political regime, and due to the limited judicial reach of the plebiscite. Although he cannot implement the accord through the legislative act 01 of July 7, 2016, he can maintain it and seek another method of implementation. Nonetheless, the triumph of the “No” forces him to open negotiations with the right-wing opposition, with no other option than to endeavor for a new pact. Since October 2nd he has organized meetings with former presidents Uribe and Pastrana, with the churches, and with different leading businessmen, and has set October 31st as a tentative deadline, as it is the same day on which the ceasefire will end.

The solution to the crisis has three possible scenarios:

The first one is to reach a national agreement that allows the FARC and other victims of the peace accords, meaning the left-wing, the ethnic and social minorities, the farmers’ organizations and the conjunction of supportive political forces, to renegotiate and find consensual points on delicate topics. These topics include: justice, political participation, democratic openness, reform and modernization of land that favors the middle and low income farmers, and the new focus of anti-drug policy. This would be the ideal scenario. The method for sealing the deal could be a Constitutional Assembly.

The second scenario would mean the FARC, the left wing, and the social organizations do not allow the renegotiation of the accords or, after the negotiation is open, they do not find consensus on several points with the right wing. In that case, Santos could realign with Uribismo, restructuring the elites and leading to the end of the peace accords and the revival of the armed conflict.

The third possibility would be that after a few weeks of negotiations, the alliances between Santos and the right wing might fracture, the peace accord would solidify, and the alliance between the liberal political elites, the left wing and social organizations would deepen. Similarly, the pressure from the international community in favor of the accords would strengthen. This would lead Santos to appeal to the Colombian National Congress and to implement the current peace accords via Congress.

The most unlikely scenario would be the national pact, because what is at stake is highly complex, polarization is extreme and the conciliation of differences very difficult. This scenario highly depends on the FARC’s disposition to coincide with Uribismo in the renegotiation of the accords. I give this a likelihood of 20 percent.

The second scenario is the saddest and most painful one, it would mean the return of the National Front and the resumption of the armed conflict with its trail of victims. This depends on the attitude of the armed forces and the international community. If these forces decide to pressure Santos in order for him to embrace the plebiscite results and agree to revise the accords with the FARC, it is likely that Santos would step back and redirect to the style of what was once called “the republican sofa,” prioritizing the accords as a way to govern the country. In any case, the Nobel Peace Prize recently awarded to Santos is going to engage him even more with the initial peace accords. I give this a likelihood of 40 percent.

The third scenario is the persistence of the liberal and progressive union that focuses on peace and pushes for changes on the national reality. This depends largely on a large mobilization from part of civil society and the ELN’s decision to join this alliance towards reforms and peace. I also believe this scenario has a likelihood of 40 percent.

Time will be an important variable in the configuration of one or the other scenario. It is very likely that Uribe’s strategy is to extend the negotiation, in order to get closer to the presidential elections in 2018. He could thus debilitate the accords between Santos and the FARC under the prolongation of a ceasefire full of incidental violations, and endeavor for the end of the civil society mobilization. On the other hand, Santos would most likely accelerate the process in order to overcome the crisis by choosing one of the previous scenarios.

 

 

 

Tags: Crises, Plebiscite

Post-Plebiscite Process Is on the “Best-Case Scenario” Track

October 13, 2016
Pro-peace demonstration in central Bogotá. Photo from La Silla Vacía.

On October 3, after the FARC peace accord’s narrow rejection in a plebiscite vote, our analysis listed several negative consequences that Colombia will face if the peace accord impasse is not resolved quickly.

Since then, the parties have taken steps to stave off some of those consequences.

The UN monitoring and verification mechanism remains. On October 3, we wrote, “Now, with no accord to implement, the UN mission’s present role and immediate future are unclear.” An October 7 communiqué from the Colombian government and the FARC clears this up somewhat:

“The tripartite monitoring and verification mechanism, with the participation of the government and the FARC-EP and the coordination of the United Nations mission, will be in charge of monitoring and verifying compliance with the protocol, particularly compliance with the rules for the ceasefire.
“With this purpose, we ask the Secretary-General of the United Nations, and through him the Security Council, to authorize the UN Mission in Colombia to exercise the functions of monitoring, verification, resolution of differences, recommendations, reports, and coordination with the Monitoring and Verification Mechanism foreseen in Resolution 2261 (2016) with reference to the mentioned Protocol.
“At the same time, we invite the countries that contribute to the Mission with unarmed observers to continue deploying their men and women, who will continue to count with all necessary security guarantees.”

UN-led monitoring of the ceasefire will be more difficult without guerrillas concentrated into zones around the country, as originally planned in the accord. Nonetheless, it decreases the chances of the ceasefire breaking down, at least over the next few months. Though President Santos announced an October 31 deadline for the ceasefire, its extension past that date is widely seen as probable.

The pilot coca substitution program continues. On October 3 we wrote, “Efforts to implement a new strategy for reducing coca cultivation, as foreseen in the accord, will be delayed, while coca planting continues expanding rapidly around the country.” While this remains a risk, the government-FARC pilot program to help coca growers abandon the crop in the town of Briceño, Antioquia, will continue its work without interruption. The October 7 communique reads:

“We will continue advancing in the launching of humanitarian confidence-building measures, such as the search for disappeared persons, pilot plans for humanitarian demining, voluntary substitution of illicit-use crops, commitments with respect to the exit of minors from encampments, and on the situation of people deprived of liberty.”

Peace talks with the ELN. On October 3, we wrote, “Peace talks with the smaller ELN guerrilla group, which were already adrift, are not likely to see a formal start in the near future.” This prediction was dead wrong: on October 10, government and ELN negotiators announced that formal talks will begin in Quito, Ecuador, on October 27.

Our October 3 analysis laid out a “best-case scenario” in which “the parties… agree quickly on a new agenda, taking into account the concerns of Colombia’s political right, with a clear timetable,” then “move determinedly in a process that revises the accords in a matter of weeks.” So far, that best-case scenario is playing out.

All sides—the government, the FARC, and the “no” vote opposition, led by Ex-President Álvaro Uribe—continue to insist on maintaining the peace talks. Friday’s awarding of President Juan Manuel Santos with the Nobel Peace Prize lent great weight to the government’s position and increased pressure on Uribe to avoid being viewed as the culprit for a possible collapse of the process. Revelations of deceptions employed by, and large donations to, the “no” side further decreased its room for political maneuver. And a growing series of public demonstrations in favor of peace has helped tip the political balance.

Today (October 13), Ex-President Uribe published his side’s demands for changes to the accords [PDF]. The FARC is certain to reject some of these proposed adjustments. Still, the list is surprisingly moderate—more realistic than ideological. Rather than dig in their heels for a radical renegotiation of an accord, Uribe and his party:

  • Ask for “effective privation of liberty” for fully confessed war crimes: not necessarily prison (the document mentions “agricultural colonies”), but more austere than the vague “effective restriction of liberty” foreseen by the peace accord.
  • Allow FARC representatives to have 10 automatic congressional seats for 8 years, but exclude from those seats those accused of war crimes.
  • Recommend, but do not insist on, a return to aerial herbicide fumigation.

A new accord may be several weeks or even a few months away. Nonetheless, the Uribe proposal’s general lack of overreach, combined with commitments to preserve the ceasefire and good news from other quarters, offers hope that post-plebiscite Colombia remains, for now, on the “best-case scenario” track.

Tags: Crises, Plebiscite

Ten analyses to guide reflection on a tumultuous week

October 9, 2016

Today marks a week since Colombians’ narrow “No” vote in a national plebiscite plunged into uncertainty a peace accord with the FARC guerrillas that took four years to negotiate. A week marked by guerrillas pulling back to jungle safe zones, a newly ascendant Ex-President Álvaro Uribe meeting with his nemesis, President Juan Manuel Santos, for the first time in more than five years, and finally with Santos winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

A week like that doesn’t lend itself to calm reflection. But today is Sunday, most of us don’t have to work, and it’s a good time to step back, seek some solitude, and think a bit more deeply about how this crisis can be overcome without loss of life, and without throwing away all that has been gained since 2012.

A mountain of analysis has been produced over the past seven days. Of the portion that I’ve seen, here are ten that I think would be most useful in guiding that reflection. Most are in Spanish, but Google Translate should give the gist.

—Adam Isacson

  • Explicar el fracaso (“Explaining the failure”), Héctor Abad Faciolince, El País (Spain)

“In Colombia, as in the whole world, the democratic struggle plays out between an old and tired political class (somewhat reasonable, as corrupt as always, and discredited by decades of ferocious criticism from us, the ‘intellectuals’) against another political class that is less reasonable, more corrupt than what is traditional, but charged up with populist slogans and foolishness. Populism, the vulgar demagogy, has triumphed around the world. Berlusconi was the prologue, because Italians are the magicians of ‘trending topics’ and invent everything first. Later came Chávez, Putin, Uribe, Ortega. Will Trump and Le Pen come next? Perhaps. They are all perfect demagogues, kleptocrats who denounce the old kleptocracy. The people prefer to vote for them in the name of ‘change.’ A leap into the unknown? Yes. A leap into the unknown is preferable to the boredom of reasonableness. Reasonableness doesn’t provide votes: it produces yawns. And what the voters fear most is to be bored.”

“The forces that oppose a liberal modernization have won again this time, with the plebiscite. What has been defeated isn’t a model of justice, but a bet on building a true nation through politics, as the great democracies of the world have done, instead of doing so through war, as many nations have done under fascist or communist models. This bet has been thrown in the garbage can by the majority.… So our future could possibly be a peace accord that arrives late, surely irrelevant, that manages to end the war but not to build a stable and lasting peace.”

“The realization of this social and political pact for peace and its implementation can be achieved via different legal channels, compatible with the constitution and the already signed accord. Without trying to be exhaustive, it is possible to mention the following, all of which have their advantages and disadvantages, which we must evaluate: i) an extra-juridical pact that has no legal value but that would be implemented through ordinary legal channels; ii) an adjustment to the accord that could be submitted to a new plebiscite, which is possible because it would be a new accord, and would be backed by the social and political agreement, which would guarantee its triumph and allow the setting in motion of the special implementation mechanisms…; iii) a constitutional convention of limited scope and mixed tasks: to debate and incorporate, without possibility of modification, the consensus topics in the Havana accord (a sort of constitutional fast track), and to discuss the topics of disagreement. I prefer the second option…”

“So far, all declarations have been politically correct and a way forward appears to have opened up. The government would listen to the proposals to modify the accord formulated by those who received majority support at the polls, and later it would bring them to the table in Havana to negotiate the changes. However, the reality is very different and the panorama is darker. For this option to be successful, the proposals from uribismo would need to be moderate, the FARC would need to be willing to renegotiate, and the President would need to adjust the aspirations of one side and the other. And the truth is that none of these three conditions appears to be being met.”

“Which of these scenarios will take shape? Four factors are going to influence heavily the way things turn out. They are the armed forces, citizen mobilization, the international community, especially the United States, and the ELN.”

“In Uribe’s deployment of social media, in his reactionary populism, and in the angry slogans and feelings on display at his noisy rallies, there are uncanny parallels to Donald Trump—and, for that matter, to the anti-E.U., anti-immigrant demonstrations that were held across United Kingdom in the lead-up to the Brexit vote, last June. And, as with Brexit, the No campaign had no realistic alternative at the ready—no better peace deal.”

“I see three possible paths: he [Álvaro Uribe] can dedicate himself to delaying and slowing this process as he has been doing, until he arrives—through a figurehead—back in the presidential palace; he can keep his word and not move one iota, obligating all of us to return to war; or he could take this third option which is what I want to suggest to him: change a couple of things in the accord, approve what you can, and appear in the photo as the great redeemer who saved us from castro-chavismo. Today, Senator Uribe, another lie from you is the only thing that can save us.”

  • Así es el país que votó No (“This is the nation that voted No”), Juan Esteban Lewin, Daniel Morelo, Daniela Garzón, Camilo A. Quiroga G., La Silla Vacía

A series of interactive maps, including this one:

“Here, as always, the people aren’t called to build peace, but to approve the peace that the experts design far away from the village and the barrio. Who told Santos that the solemn signing of a peace accord in a tattered country should happen in a VIP ceremony designed only for the international grandstand, in the most elitist city in the country, leaving aside not just the humble people of that same city, but even the national media?”

  • Mentiras (“Lies”), Juan Gabriel Vásquez, El Espectador

“It’s evident: what went on here was a conspiracy in full force, and its objective was to fool the people. Nothing will happen, of course, because those who fooled so many are now—thanks to the same deceit—part of the negotiation, and they now have the power conceded to them by the superstition and the credulity of millions of Colombians. But one day we will have to undergo a test of conscience and define whether the fact that so many uribistas are in jail or fugitives from justice is a persecution, as they monotonously allege, or the natural result of Ex-President Uribe surrounding himself so often with people whose sense of decency is—to say it gently—turned down to a low volume.”

Tags: Crises, Plebiscite

What Are They Thinking?

July 16, 2015

The last seven months have seen the pendulum of Colombia’s peace process swing back and forth rather wildly. The year began with optimism: the FARC was observing a unilateral ceasefire that began on December 20. Armed violence dropped to levels not seen since the early 1980s.

An April 15 FARC attack on a military column in Cauca, in southwestern Colombia, dashed this optimism. The three months that followed were marked by a dramatic re-escalation of the conflict, with June the most violent month since talks began in October 2012.

Then—almost as abruptly—the FARC declared a new unilateral ceasefire on July 8, for one month starting July 20 (Colombia’s independence day). Government and FARC negotiators went further four days later, signing an accord making the FARC ceasefire indefinite and committing the government to de-escalating its own military actions if the FARC maintains its ceasefire. The July 12 accord raises the priority of negotiating a bilateral ceasefire (something the government had resisted) and accelerating discussions of what remains to be negotiated, especially transitional justice for the worst human rights violators.

This is a positive development, though perhaps not a breakthrough. We can expect real progress in the next few months, but not miracles. There will likely be further setbacks as the pendulum inevitably swings back. As we contemplate the next few months, it’s worth looking at the volatile swings of 2015 from both sides’ on-the-record perspectives.

The December-May unilateral ceasefire

FARC: Government:

We want a bilateral ceasefire as soon as possible, so that the talks may proceed without battlefield distractions. To that end, we declared a unilateral ceasefire of our own in December. We warned that we would end our ceasefire if the government continued to attack us. Though the government called a halt to aerial bombings in March, ground attacks continued. During our truce, the heads of the 57th and 66th Fronts, and the number-two commander of the 17th Front, were killed in attacks.

We have been reluctant to enter into a bilateral ceasefire because we fear the FARC will use the respite from battlefield pressure to strengthen itself militarily. When the FARC declared its unilateral ceasefire in December, we took a “wait and see” attitude, with modest steps toward de-escalation. And in fact, though there was an important drop in FARC attacks, the guerrillas did not cease all hostilities or illegal activity. During their truce, they continued to traffic drugs, to extort legal businesses, and to lay landmines. We could not justify pulling back a military that is reluctant to be restrained.

The April 15 attack in Cauca

FARC: Government:

This action wan’t exactly something that we ordered our fighters to carry out, but it fits within the general orders we gave: the column that launched the attack was being pursued by the military unit it attacked, so we regard their response to be self-defense. (Alternatively: our fighters were finding the unilateral ceasefire intolerable because of the government’s continued attacks, and with this incident we provoked a massive response—a mid-May wave of aerial bombings that killed over 40 guerrillas—that served as a pretext for calling an end to our ceasefire.)

Though the military unit that suffered the attack may not have followed security protocols, the attack itself shows why a unilateral ceasefire with no credible verification was a bad idea. Incidents like this are why we won’t accept a bilateral ceasefire without real verification, some concentration of guerrilla forces in specific areas, and a cessation of all hostilities, not just offensive attacks.

The FARC counter-offensive: May 22-early July

FARC: Government:

After lifting our ceasefire, it was time to remind the Colombian government—and the Colombian people—what we are capable of. We chose to hit almost entirely military and economic targets: rather than kill civilians in populated areas, we turned their lights out. As oil is Colombia’s largest source of foreign exchange, we especially hit the oil sector. Our offensive did some damage to the peace process, but while we bent it, we did not break it. When serious cracks started to show, we declared a new ceasefire and won a government commitment to respond with promises of de-escalation and intensified bilateral ceasefire talks.

The FARC offensive was reckless and counter to the guerrillas’ own self-interest. It increased Colombians’ anger not just against the FARC, but against the whole idea of negotiating with them. After a month of FARC attacks dominating the headlines, political pressures on us are so great that one more serious incident, or one more long period with no progress to show, and—as chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said—“This could end. One day, it’s likely that they won’t find us at the table in Havana.”

The next four months (after which the parties agree to review whether to continue the peace talks)

FARC: Government:

We want a bilateral ceasefire and accept the involvement of the UN and UNASUR in verifying de-escalation, as agreed on July 12. We want that ceasefire to give us the maximum amount of freedom, mobility, and ability to remain funded and equipped in case the talks fail.

We do not intend to sign a peace accord only to see our leaders go straight to a prison for past human rights crimes: that has never happened in any peace process, only in surrender negotiations. However, if Colombia applies a similar punishment standard to military personnel, and to civilians who sponsored paramilitary groups, we could contemplate some form of confinement for a reduced period of time, along with confessions and reparations.

We would prefer a bilateral ceasefire at the very end of the talks, but if it allows the sensitive negotiations over transitional justice to proceed in a calmer atmosphere, we are open to negotiating that bilateral ceasefire now. This ceasefire must have credible, capable verification: while we would rather those verifiers be Colombian, we will allow some international role. The ceasefire must include some concentration of FARC forces in specific zones. In those zones—which must have little population and little economic importance—perhaps the FARC can remain armed and receive financial support to sustain its members. The ceasefire must include a halt to all illegal activity, including extortion, narcotrafficking, laying landmines, and child recruitment.

We are willing to consider lighter alternative sentences—perhaps not even confinement—for the worst FARC human rights violators, and we would prefer that Colombia’s justice system take charge of the prosecution and sentencing. Colombia’s justice system might issue similarly light penalties, including a requirement of confessions and reparations, to members of the military who ordered or committed serious human rights crimes.

Tags: Cease-Fire, Crises, De-escalation

Colombia’s Peace Process: Some Frequently Asked Questions

June 23, 2015

(1,754 words, approximate reading time 8 minutes, 46 seconds)

For over 25 years, the Washington Office on Latin America has closely tracked Colombia’s armed conflict and efforts to end it. With the U.S. House of Representatives holding a hearing about Colombia’s peace process tomorrow, here is our assessment of the current moment.

How would a peace accord benefit U.S. interests in Colombia?

In the 12 years between the launch of “Plan Colombia” (2000) and the relaunch of talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas (2012), Colombia tripled its defense budget and increased its armed forces by about 75 percent. A long offensive decreased the FARC’s size by about two-thirds. Today, this means that the FARC still has about 7,000 members and 15,000 support personnel. Though the FARC has no hope of taking power by force, the past 12 years’ rate of reduction promises years of continued conflict.

After 51 years of fighting, negotiation offers a quicker way to end the FARC’s status as a cause of violence and drug production. A peace accord would dissolve a group on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, as thousands of its members move into legality. This would ease efforts to reduce production and transshipment of U.S.-bound illegal drugs. And it would offer an opportunity for improved governance over historically lawless territories that provide safe haven to terror groups and traffickers.

Is a peace accord likely?

Yes, but getting there will be slow. Formal negotiations began two and a half years ago, and could easily take another year. Nonetheless, negotiators at the table are working in a disciplined way with international accompaniment, respecting the ground rules and generating hundreds of pages of proposals and dozens of pages of draft accords.

Negotiators have signed preliminary accords on rural development, political participation for the opposition, reforms to drug policy, and a truth commission. They have taken some steps toward de-escalating the conflict: the FARC is cooperating with the government on initial de-mining projects, and has agreed to turn over any minors in its ranks under the age of 15.


Negotiators announce agreement on a Truth Commission in June.

Still, some of the most difficult questions remain unresolved. Negotiators must find a way to hold human rights abusers accountable while also persuading them to disarm. They still must come to agreement on reparations to victims, the nature of combatants’ disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, and the method of ratifying a final agreement.

The negotiations are going on without a ceasefire, amid frequently intense combat. This is a deliberate choice of the Colombian government, which is concerned that the FARC might use a ceasefire to regroup and reinforce itself. President Juan Manuel Santos insists that a bilateral cease-fire must wait until the end of the process. In the meantime, acts of violence undermine public support for the dialogues, and affect the climate at the negotiating table.

Are the talks in a rough patch?

Yes. The FARC had declared a unilateral cease-fire effective December 20, 2014, which brought an approximately 85 percent reduction in guerrilla offensive actions (though guerrilla “fundraising” activities, like extortion and narcotrafficking, continued). The ceasefire was not reciprocal: though the government halted aerial bombings of FARC targets in March, the guerrillas complained of frequent military ground attacks.

On April 15, FARC fighters attacked a military column encamped in a rural town in southwestern Colombia, killing 11 soldiers. The guerrillas refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, and the government responded by resuming aerial bombings, including three raids in May that killed over 40 FARC members. The FARC revoked its cease-fire on May 22, and has since carried out a steady campaign of attacks on civilian economic infrastructure. Attacks on oil pipelines and power lines are causing environmental damage and blackouts.


The aftermath of the April 15 FARC attack.

What does public opinion say?

The guerrilla offensive has dangerously drained support for the talks. In late February, during the guerrillas’ unilateral cease-fire, Colombia’s bimonthly Gallup poll found 72 percent of respondents supporting the government’s decision to negotiate with the FARC. For only the second time since the talks started, Gallup found a majority—53 percent—optimistic that an accord might be reached. Two months later, those numbers fell to 57 percent and 40 percent, respectively.

Would a ceasefire help?

Some analysts contend that the guerrillas are deliberately seeking to anger Colombians, in the belief that President Santos might agree to a bilateral cease-fire to save the peace process. This is a miscalculation: public fatigue with the peace process makes it more likely that the government might walk away from the talks completely.

Tags: Cease-Fire, Crises, U.S. Policy

What Now? De-Escalate. Consider a Bilateral Cease-Fire.

May 28, 2015
Poll data published in early May show 64% of Colombians favoring deadlines for peace talks, and 69% feeling pessimistic about the possibility of reaching an accord.

(2,008 words, approximate reading time 10 minutes, 2 seconds)

Colombia’s peace process with the FARC continues to wobble from the blow dealt by the April 15 guerrilla attack that killed 11 soldiers in southwestern Colombia. Just since May 21, Colombia’s military has launched retaliatory raids on FARC positions that have killed at least 40 guerrillas, including two who spent time as negotiators in Havana. The FARC has responded by revoking the unilateral cease-fire it had declared on December 20, and by launching attacks of its own.

On May 25, as negotiators sat down in Havana for a delayed start to their 37th round of talks, FARC negotiator Pablo Catatumbo told reporters, “The sorrowful events that occurred last week are a step backward in the advances made until now at the table.” Headlines in Colombia’s press now refer to “The Wounded Peace,” “A Return To Dialogue Amid War,” and (citing the Colombian government’s Inspector-General, a critic of the process) “Peace Process In Intensive Care.”

The fundamentals are sound, for now

The April 15 FARC attack was, for most Colombians, the unofficial end of the unilateral cease-fire that the guerrillas had declared on December 20 and canceled on May 22. Still, despite continued wobbles, this remains fundamentally the same peace process that it was on April 14, the day before the FARC attack.

  • On April 14, the negotiators were discussing transitional justice and disarmament, the last two substantive items (and likely the two most difficult) on their agenda. They were doing so in a disciplined manner, following agreed-upon ground rules, considering detailed proposals, working with international accompaniment, and respecting confidentiality. They are still doing that.
  • On April 14, a group of active-duty military personnel, part of an “end of conflict subcommittee,” was discussing the technical details of disarmament, as well as how to implement interim de-escalation measures, especially a joint de-mining program. They are still doing that. In fact, leading guerrilla negotiators quietly visited Antioquia and Meta departments recently to lay groundwork for the first landmine removal projects.
  • On April 14, outside observers and foreign governments were focusing not just on remaining negotiation items, but on preparation for post-conflict challenges. They remain focused on the post-conflict.

On the other hand:

  • On April 14, polls [PDF] were, for one the first times since talks began, showing a majority of Colombians believing that a peace accord with the FARC might be possible. Today, that is once again a minority view inside Colombia.
  • On April 14, the FARC was in its fourth month of a cease-fire that—though unilateral and barely verified, and thus fatally flawed—had brought measures of conflict-related violence down to lows not seen since 1984, according to CERAC, a Bogotá think-tank that closely monitors violence. The 153-day stoppage in guerrilla offensive actions may have prevented about 614 dead or wounded, estimated Bogotá’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation. Still, CERAC points out, the temporary truce may have allowed FARC units “to maintain or improve their position in exploiting illegal income from illicit crops, narcotrafficking, illegal mining, illegal timber harvesting, and extortion.”

Either way, that flawed cease-fire is now over, and we are about to find out the extent to which events on the battlefield affect dynamics at the negotiating table. It is unclear how many more “wobbles” this process can sustain, yet the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation asserts that more are coming: “We have information that the FARC are ready to respond with actions against oil and energy infrastructure, which could end in confrontations in many zones of the country,” said the group’s director, León Valencia.

The push to “accelerate”

With no cease-fire in place and public opinion now skeptical, patience is wearing thin. A broad spectrum of actors—the Colombian government, the U.S. government, the United Nations, former FMLN and IRA fighters—are calling on both sides to speed the tempo of the dialogues, at a time when the negotiators are considering some of the most sensitive topics on the entire agenda.

At this moment, the negotiators in Havana face three options. All are very difficult.

Tags: Cease-Fire, Crises, De-escalation

As Talks Resume, “De-escalation” Is on the Table

December 3, 2014

Update 2:00PM: Negotiators in Havana have just announced that the peace talks will formally resume on December 10. Colombia’s El Tiempo reports, “Starting on December 10, they will dedicate themselves to discussing the issue of de-escalation of the conflict.”

On Sunday, FARC guerrillas released Gen. Rubén Darío Alzate and two others whom they had held for two weeks in Chocó, in northwestern Colombia. On Monday, the Colombian government ended its suspension of peace talks, sending four senior negotiators to Havana to meet with the guerrillas for two days. The sides met for four hours Tuesday, in “an atmosphere of cordiality and respect.” They are meeting again Wednesday.

But they are not picking up where they left off, continuing their discussion of “Victims,” the dialogues’ fourth agenda point. Instead, President Juan Manuel Santos explained, the negotiators are in Havana “for a couple of days to evaluate where the process is, where we’re going, and to do a cold, objective evaluation of the process, to see how we can continue.”

This probably means that we can expect some rewriting of the ground rules that have governed the peace talks since 2012. These specified that although the FARC had to abandon its practice of kidnapping civilians, the conflict could otherwise continue while talks proceed. There would be no cessation of hostilities, and what happens on the battlefield would not affect what happens at the table.

Dialogue amid conflict has not been easy. In July, after the FARC bombed several civilian energy infrastructure targets—a violation of International Humanitarian Law but not a violation of the talks’ "ground rules”—President Santos warned, “Keep this up and you are playing with fire and this process can end.” (The attacks died down.) And then on November 16, guerrillas captured Gen. Alzate. While this was an unplanned event—Gen. Alzate wandered, dressed as a civilian, into a town where FARC fighters were present—and although capturing enemy prisoners is a common act of war, the General’s capture proved too much for the Colombian government, which immediately suspended the peace talks.

The government has made clear that “negotiating amid conflict” has tacit limits. These limits have become tighter as the peace process has progressed. Today in Havana, the government likely wants to make them more formal.

The guerrillas likely agree with that, in broad terms. They probably expect some guarantees, or restraint, from the government in return for releasing Gen. Alzate. If capturing military officers is now “against the rules,” they will seek new rules that are more favorable to their fighters in the field.

“Those who suspended the conversations cannot return with the intention of imposing the date of their re-initiation, as though nothing has happened,” reads a FARC communiqué issued Monday. “The rules guiding the process will have to be re-made, since the government broke them, damaging the bridge of trust that we had built.”

The FARC wants a full, bilateral cease-fire. That is unlikely. The government argues that the FARC would use the resulting respite to re-arm and strengthen itself. It would be hard to get the Colombian military to go along with a bilateral truce. And it would be nearly impossible to verify: the talks’ agenda could be derailed as negotiators in Havana argue over reports of bombings, ambushes, killings and similar alleged cease-fire violations.

Instead, the word we are hearing most often right now is “de-escalation.”

Tags: Cease-Fire, Crises, De-escalation

An Advanced Peace Process Demanded a General’s Release

November 20, 2014
Las Mercedes, Chocó, where the FARC captured Gen. Rubén Darío Alzate on Sunday.

On their second anniversary, peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas are frozen. The impasse may soon be over, though: the peace process “guarantor” states, Cuba and Norway, announced a breakthrough on Wednesday evening.

A new round of talks was to begin in Cuba yesterday (November 18), but government negotiators refused to go to Havana until the FARC releases Gen. Ruben Darío Alzate, the chief of the Colombian military’s “Joint Task Force Titan” in the northwestern department (province) of Chocó. Guerrillas captured Gen. Alzate the afternoon of Sunday, November 16. It was the first time in 50 years of conflict that a general has fallen into guerrilla hands.

After several days of behind-the-scenes discussions involving Cuban and Norwegian diplomats and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the FARC appears to have agreed to release Gen. Alzate, along with a civilian lawyer and a corporal who were traveling with him, plus two soldiers captured a week earlier in the department of Arauca near the Venezuelan border. “The liberations will be carried out as soon as possible,” pending logistical arrangements, announced Cuban and Norwegian diplomats.

The Gen. Alzate affair shows us that as the peace talks have advanced, the ground rules governing them have tacitly changed. Taking a general prisoner did not violate the pre-conditions that FARC agreed for the talks. The guerrillas agreed to stop kidnapping civilians, not military personnel—and in warfare, adversaries capture and imprison the other side’s combatants all the time.

But the ground has shifted, in a positive direction. Ultimately, even if the FARC followed the peace process “rules,” its action left Colombian government negotiators with no choice. There is no way that Colombian public opinion, Colombia’s political class (including center-left politicians), and especially Colombia’s military would have allowed talks to go on while the FARC held an army general. Not because of rules, but because of a shifting political climate, the FARC had to choose between keeping Gen. Alzate or keeping the peace process alight. The government now faces similar informal constraints on its actions against top FARC leaders while talks continue.

This episode is also a consequence of negotiating amid war. As the Colombian government refused to declare a cease-fire, incidents like Gen. Alzate’s abduction were a foreseeable, and even probable, risk. On the other hand, negotiating amid a cease-fire has practical disadvantages: the parties could end up wasting time at the table disputing alleged cease-fire violations instead of attending to the points on the talks’ agenda.

Tags: Cease-Fire, Crises