By Christian Voelkel (@voelkelchr)
Twelve months after the ceremonial opening of peace talks between the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), there are growing concerns that the process might run into trouble amid a perceived lack of progress, mutual recriminations and the increasingly heated political atmosphere ahead of the 2014 electoral cycle. Both parties must now look beyond their own short-term interests to ensure that Colombia’s best opportunity to end the conflict is not seriously jeopardised.
There has been a growing sense of crisis after the much anticipated 15th round of talks in Havana ended on 12 October with no agreement on the issue of political participation — how to transform the guerrillas into democratic political actors — which has been under discussion since June. There was also, for the first time, no joint communiqué issued. The temperature rose further when, on 13 October, Santos blamed FARC for the seeming lack of progress. This followed a heated exchange between Santos and guerrilla leader Timochenko after the president’s September speech before the UN General Assembly, in which he had demanded faster results, arguing that the patience of Colombians was not “infinite.” It also followed what looked like Santos’s own vote of no-confidence on 9 October when he launched a large scale military offensive targeting FARC leaders in their southern strongholds.
There are Real Achievements…
The growing perception that talks are going nowhere contrasts with the negotiators’ already substantial achievements. These include a partial agreement on “comprehensive rural reform” announced in late May and some, albeit insufficient, progress on the issue of political participation. Both parties have also respected the confidentiality rule, despite intense media scrutiny. More broadly, they appear to be developing a common vision of the transition, with FARC slowly, but still not unreservedly, embracing the idea that the purpose of the talks is restricted to ending the armed confrontation rather than constructing peace, which would involve a much more ambitious agenda. But perhaps most significantly, the sustained bilateral talks have built up trust between negotiators and have led to gradual changes in attitudes and language on both sides.
By most standards, this is a praiseworthy record. In none of the previous attempts over the last three decades to reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict have the parties come this far.
The measured pace of the talks probably reflects above all the real difficulties of finding a middle ground on highly complex and long-standing issues like political participation, rural development or interdicting illegal drugs. (Moreover, recent discussions have apparently not been limited to political participation but have also touched on the remaining issues on the agenda.) But if such a challenging agenda has slowed the pace, it is equally evidence that the negotiators remain ambitious.
…But Political Dynamics Risk Undoing Them.
The problem is, of course, that the progress achieved appears too little, if judged against the government’s (self-imposed) deadline that negotiations should be wrapped up by November, when President Santos needs to declare whether he intends to run for a second term in the May 2014 elections. As it becomes increasingly clear that this deadline might not be met, nerves are beginning to fray, prompting Santos to ask congress members from his party whether they want to abandon, continue, or suspend the talks during the elections.
The growing debate this has triggered about how to proceed during the electoral period is not necessarily a bad thing. Political expectations need to adjust to a new time horizon. By forcing people to take positions, it might end up strengthening political support for the process, with mainstream parties and civil society throwing their weight behind it. But flirting with the idea of breaking up the talks also reinforces long-standing doubts about the government’s real commitment. In July, Santos said he was “banking on peace”, but in practice his government has remained ambivalent, at once pursuing peace and intensifying military action.
This ambiguity is understandable. The government wants to keep the pressure on FARC and does not want to risk alienating military and conservative caucuses that are highly sceptical of the talks. But if the government repeats often enough that breaking up the talks would be cost free for Colombia — given that talks are being held abroad and no ceasefire has yet been agreed — voters could well end up asking why bother with the process anyway.
FARC’s own delaying tactics have arguably made it more difficult for the government to assume a stronger defence of the talks. Faced with a weakened president who is increasingly dependent on the talks for his re-election, the guerrillas may well have dragged their feet hoping to force the government into bigger concessions. This is a dangerous and potentially self-defeating game. The more anxious Santos feels about his re-election prospects the more attractive it is for him to keep all options open, including the military one.
As pressure on the process mounts, FARC could also be tempted to ramp up violence to demonstrate that it is not a defeated force. There is some evidence this is happening, although it is too early to tell whether the spike in attacks is the beginning of an offensive. If it is, it will do little more than further weaken confidence and trust in the peace process, both between the parties and among Colombians.
It is important not to overstate the problems in Havana. The fundamentals remain strong and failure remote, given the prohibitive costs it would inflict on both FARC and the government. This is a process facing rougher terrain, but not one in free fall. However, if left unchecked current political dynamics could hollow out public support for the talks and embolden critics who have long argued that the process would eventually collapse over the impossibility of striking a deal with the guerrillas.
What happens between now and the elections could therefore be decisive. If the process continues to languish amid intensifying political attacks, half-hearted attempts to defend it and a potentially intensifying military confrontation, there may be question marks over its political viability by the time Colombians go the polls.
Both parties still have more than enough time to correct course. To guarantee the process remains politically viable they need to tone down their rhetoric, focus on producing tangible progress, and send clear signals of their continuing commitment to reaching a political solution. For FARC, this would entail accepting a reasonably narrow interpretation of the agenda and redoubling efforts to produce further concrete results. For the government, this would above all mean starting to defend the process more forcefully by pointing to the considerable achievements to date and making sure its message of peace is reflected more coherently across policy areas — for example, in its handling of social protests.
Much more than any possible suspension during the electoral period, strengthening public trust and confidence in the talks is the best protection for the process as it enters its most challenging phase yet.