Colombia’s Peace Process: The Long Road Ahead

On December 20, 2014, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) began an indefinite, unilateral ceasefire to its 50 year-old conflict with Colombia. The announcement came on the heels of the group’s release of General Ruben Dario Alzate, who was kidnapped in November, a move which had derailed the peace talks that started back in 2012. The talks, launched by President Juan Manuel Santos, are a historic opportunity for the government and the guerrilla group, and a chance to end the longest conflict in Latin American history. However, cautious optimism is essential as the two parties have agreed on only minor points, and the major items (such as the FARC’s disarmament and the right of victims through compensation and a truth commission) have yet to be covered.

The two parties, meeting in Cuba, have agreed on three points of their six-point agenda: land reform, political participation for the rebels, and eliminating drug trafficking. These have been hailed by all parties as essential components for productive discussions, and the agenda is much more realistic compared to previous peace talks. In fact, the two sides have also agreed on formatting a truth commission that would investigate the deaths and human rights violations that have occurred over the past five decades of conflict.

The hopes of finding peace made the talks a central part of President Santos’ reelection last June. Santos’ reelection provides the talks with legitimacy for Colombians, despite recent polls showing that they are losing patience; a December poll showed that 57% of Colombians believe that negotiations will fail. Furthermore, President Santos finds himself with a stronger opposition in Congress, led by former president and now senator Alvaro Uribe, who remains popular in the country due to his actions against the FARC.

However, negotiations remain fragile given the long history and the demands of the FARC. The group has stated that they will not disarm immediately, instead calling for a ten year phase-out period. They claim that this would ensure that the government honors the peace plan. On the other hand, this could also allow the FARC to maintain a parallel armed force ready to re-start the conflict. Similarly, Peasant Reserve Zones (Zonas de Reserva Campesina – ZRC), zones that would have some autonomy for indigenous reservations and farmers, were agreed upon as part of the land reform. While the government agreed in spirit, the FARC could ask for ZRCs in zones they already control, providing them with a de facto state from which they could rearm.

Lastly, while political participation has also been agreed, Colombian history tells a dark story for left-wing parties. The last time the FARC participated in politics was in 1985 through the Patriotic Union (Union Patriotica – PU) party. The party won 13 seats in the 1986 congressional elections, but roughly 4,000 candidates, members and supporters were killed by paramilitaries and their allies in the security apparatus. While this occurred in the late 80s, it remains an issue today: over the past two years, 48 members of the Patriotic March (Marcha Patriotica), a party supporting the FARC, were assassinated.

Despite these obstacles, this is the last chance for the FARC to gain a peaceful deal. The Colombian government has all the cards now: its military has maintained its pressure on the guerrilla group, and unlike the previous peace talks, it refused to implement a ceasefire. Furthermore, while Colombians are in favor of the talks, they will not stand for impunity and allow an amnesty of the FARC’s senior leadership. Similarly, the FARC’s foreign supporters are in trouble: Venezuela is in economic crisis, and Cuba has begun a rapprochement with the United States.

However, Bogota cannot win the war by force alone. The FARC remain in control of remote rural areas, and have adapted to the circumstances by using hit-and-run tactics on villages, and more importantly, on economic interests, including Ecopetrol’s (Colombia’s state-own oil and natural gas company) oil pipelines, hurting production and the national economy. Colombia’s vast jungle territory and loose border have allowed the FARC to hide seamlessly and even cross over the Ecuadorian and Venezuelan borders. And while the government’s Agency for Reintegration (ACR) has demobilized 18,000 FARC members since 2003, these initiatives alone will be insufficient to end the conflict.

There should be cautious optimism regarding the peace talks as it offers the best chance for ending the conflict, and both sides have incentives for continuing negotiations. However, the Colombian people will have the final say, as the government wants to put up the final agreement to a referendum. Thus, the more realistic the agreement (meaning it deals with what Colombians want and not what the leadership on both sides prefer), the more likely it is to succeed.

Like Luis’s article? Check out some of his other work at The Western Hemisphere

Photo by Germán Cabrejo, for equinoXio / CC BY-2.0

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