FARC Peace Process Slipping through Santos’s Fingers

Severe delays in peace talks with FARC in Havana have diluted President Juan Manuel Santos's political capital.
Severe delays in peace talks with FARC in Havana have diluted President Juan Manuel Santos’s political capital. (Noticias24)

EspañolTime has become a heavy burden for the talks concerning a peace deal in Colombia that are ongoing in Havana, Cuba.

Two and a half years have passed since dialogue between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) began, and it seems as though Colombians are beginning to despair over the lack of concrete results, while the enemies of the process gather strength. According to the latest bimonthly survey by Gallup, April saw Colombians’ support for the peace process fall by 17 points from the previous poll, from 69 percent to 52 percent.

Those who begin to lose hope are not without good reason. While all such negotiations to finalize long-standing conflicts are complex, slow, and pass through difficult periods, the problem with the Colombian process is that no way out can be discerned in the face of the oscillating position of the guerrilla, who are rapidly losing credibility.

A strong majority of Colombians and international actors are now doubting whether the expected deals will be honored by the guerrilla, even if they are formally agreed to.

This threatens to destroy not only the three preliminary agreements reached, out of five pre-arranged items in total, but also the confidence that Colombians have hitherto placed in Santos to bring the enterprise he embarked upon to a happy conclusion.

It’s worth restating that Santos won his second term in office riding a wave of support for the peace process. He convinced Colombians that this time a deal would be reached, and that his strategy of talking to the guerrilla while continuing to engage rebel units militarily was the best route towards triumph.

However, two and a half years of conversation later, in the comfort of Havana hotels, where the guerrilla leaders have come to benefit from a surge of legitimacy, hopes that the talks in the Cuban capital would bring an end to the conflict lasting over 50 years are beginning to fade.

Particularly after April 15, when a FARC unit massacred 11 soldiers of the Colombian army in Cauca, while their leaders were sat around the table in Havana — indicating still further that the group will only come to peace under its own terms. Although the FARC grandees in Cuba have since tried to distance themselves from the ambush — reiterating that they aren’t responsible, and promising investigations into what happened — few believe their words.

Editor’s note: Strong images. Viewer discretion advised.

Some analysts that claim to know FARC well signal that the massacre wasn’t organized by the main wing of the group — which is seeking a peace deal with the government — but by dissident groups that exist within the ranks of the organization, who don’t want the war to finally come to an end.

But the majority of Colombians think — and the presumption is not irrational — that it was the same guerrilla leaders sat around the dialogue table that orchestrated the killing, perhaps seeking to oblige the government to declare a bilateral ceasefire, something Santos has repeatedly refused to do.

This growing uneasiness isn’t felt in the civilian world alone: many analysts are signalling the increasingly evident demoralization at the heart of the armed forces, fundamentally among the rank and file, who feel abandoned by their superior officers and left without the necessary support to do their dangerous work.

The Cauca massacre in particular was only made possible by the presidential decision to suspend aerial bombardments, as a form of meeting the unilateral ceasefire declared by FARC halfway. Without air support, the killing of the soldiers was made much easier.

After the killings, Santos condemned the bloodletting in strong terms, and demanded that the guerrilla not only recognize its crimes and ask for forgiveness for the attack, but show genuine proof of wanting to reach a deal in Havana sooner rather than later. Santos also announced the need to put time limits on the peace talks. But the FARC leadership only responded with an open letter in which they argued that “peace won’t be achieved with a timepiece in one hand” and that the only way of speeding up the process would be to “discard issues.”

After the 36th cycle of negotiations began in Cuba, the guerrilla made a series of demands to put an end to the armed conflict, which many viewed as seeking only to lengthen the negotiation process. They demanded that the government declassify the secret archives concerning the decades-long counterinsurgency; that a possible Truth Commission shouldn’t act as a judicial body but only as an extra-legal investigation and punishment body; the creation of a constituent assembly to achieve a “restorative and creative peace”; and that the government formally begin negotiations with Colombia’s other, smaller guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) — which a few days ago incited the anger and indignation of Colombians when it exhibited publicly in a school the amputated leg of a solider injured by a landmine.

This cycle of talks ended on May 8 with a call from the FARC for the government to dismantle state-backed paramilitary groups, and without an agreement over reparations for the victims of the conflict, and issue which has been debated for months. It’s obvious that the talks are in a critical state, something which has been recognized by both parties.

Santos is undoubtedly worried as his popularity and political capital rapidly decline, and although he claims that he prioritizes peace over public approval of his administration, Santos knows that he has to maintain a strong front against the rebel group, and can scarcely concede the bilateral truce that the FARC desperately want.

The president knows that the window of opportunity is beginning to close with the greatest of his objectives being far from consolidated in the short term, which will put his political capital and the legacy of peace he seeks to leave his country at serious risk. As a result, a desperate Santos has sought to renew ties with his one-time mentor turned bitter presidential rival, former President Álvaro Uribe, after four years of confrontation between the two.

The thaw is only just beginning, but it’s significant that after the first private meeting with Senator Uribe, Santos’s emissary — Minister for the Presidency Néstor Humberto Martínez — declared to the press that “President Uribe isn’t opposed to peace, there are no enemies of peace.”

Santos needs Uribe for his political career once more; he’s had to bend the knee because he knows that Uribe is the only one who can heave him out of the quicksand in which he finds himself.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

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