Can Colombia’s Peace Talks Succeed?

Colombia’s fourth and hopefully definitive try at peace talks with the country’s largest rebel group begin today in Oslo, Norway. The previous three tries between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—once in the 1980s and twice in the 1990s—all ended with the armed conflict plummeting to new lows. Everyone hopes this time will be different. I hope so, too, but I go back and forth between optimism and skepticism. People have asked me what I think about this historic moment, so here is what I see as some of the key issues that beset the rocky road ahead.

First, a quick intro to the peace process: It will proceed in three steps, and the first step has already succeeded—they agreed on a limited five-point agenda. The second phase, which is what begins today in Oslo, is the actual negotiation toward an agreement on these five points. The parties have promised to stay at the table until an agreement is reached—the understanding is that only then would a ceasefire be declared. Soon, the talks will move from Oslo to Havana for logistical reasons, but both Norway and Cuba will remain as “guarantors” of the process. In the event of a successful pact, the third phase would be the implementation and verification of the accords.

The five points up for discussion are:

  1. Rural Development: The FARC has always called for an “agrarian reform.” The government conceded the need to improve “rural development.” Where this goes is anyone’s guess. This is the first item they’ll discuss.
  2. Political Participation: What are the legal consequences of the FARC’s crimes and what will be the nature or extent of their transition into a legal political movement? What will this look like?
  3. End of the Conflict: What are the practical requisites or steps for a ceasefire? And how will disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration work? What are the guarantees? With what benefits?
  4. Illicit Drugs: Both sides recognize how failed global drug policy helps fuel violence in Colombia and elsewhere. Domestically, there’s actually a lot that can be done in terms of policy change. Internationally, it’s obviously a lot harder.
  5. Victims: How will truth, reparations, reconciliation, and truth be guaranteed to victims of the FARC? Will the same apply to victims of state violence? The FARC considers itself a victim of the state.

So Far So Good

The fact that they’ve agreed on this much is already a huge step.

Demobilization vs. Peace

First of all, what’s success? I think it’s more appropriate to describe the end game to the talks as “demobilization” rather than “peace.” The pragmatism displayed by the two parties already points in this direction. I think this is a plus. It keeps our feet on the ground, settles our expectations, and doesn’t weigh down the table with broader questions.

As I see it, the ultimate goal is for the FARC to transition into an unarmed political movement. As it stands, the FARC remains a dangerous liability for the left and the country’s battered social movements. And I think the concessions gained by the FARC will be wholly positive for the country—historically, they have been.

Thinking in terms of demobilization also implicitly signals the dangers of the process. Although the FARC is a deeply hierarchical, top-down military organization, it is also decentralized into 46 different fronts, so it’s possible (some would say likely) that dissident, breakaway factions will emerge. At the very least, mid-level commanders and rank-and-file could be easily absorbed by narco-paramilitary groups or other guerrilla groups.

Legally, the Table’s Set

The demobilization of right-wing paramilitaries that started in 2003 has been widely criticized and surely is no model to follow; it actually serves as a good “what not to do” in this process. Lessons learned. But the demobilization does provide a ready-made infrastructure that could be adapted to the FARC. The other useful structure is the recently passed Victims and Land Restitution Law. Although this law is still getting off the ground, it also provides a ready-made structure for several agenda items.

These two laws/programs, however, are already overwhelmed. And though helpful they are insufficient for attending to the particularities of whatever will come out of the talks. The FARC are a unique insurgency and the agreement will reflect this.

The legal questions of drugs is much more difficult. The government recognizes there’s a vast space between prohibition and legalization, and it has been lobbying internationally for drug policy reform. But the government is also deeply beholden to Washington, where the prohibitionist regime holds sway, so it’s not clear how far it’s willing to go. At the very least, it will offer crop-substitution programs for a major part of the FARC’s social base (coca growers). It might even make some concessions on aerial crop fumigation, which are central plank of U.S. policy in the country.

Time: Tick-Tock

The clock is running. This could play out in different ways. Both parties promised an “expedient” negotiation. In the past, formal talks have dragged on for years. But time has always been on the side of the famously patient FARC. In fact, when the government mentioned eight months or a year as a timeframe the other day, the FARC balked.

The eight to twelve months bookend is significant, because that’s about when campaigns for the 2014 general elections begin. This might make the government more willing to make concessions so it can secure a deal before the electoral season begins. It could also give the FARC some leverage against the government. Best-case scenario, this might force some common ground. Worst-case scenario, public fatigue and impatience would grow and the talks could be politicized and even torpedoed by electoral jockeying. Failure would also embolden the most recalcitrant sectors of the right.

Behind Closed Doors

The fact that it will be just the FARC and the government at the table is a good thing. Some people, especially on the left, have complained that Colombian society is not being represented at the table. But if we see this as more of a demobilization process, rather than a peace negotiation then I think this is less problematic. Again, reducing the scope of the talks improves the chances of success (i.e. demobilization).

Putting the entire social structure of the country on the table hasn’t worked in the past, so it’s worth protecting the “limited” scope of the talks. For these same reasons, I think it’s okay that the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) is not yet part of the process. As to whether and how they should be included, I would say, “Not yet. Let’s wait and see.”

Latin America’s Geopolitical Conjuncture

During previous negotiations, Latin America was mired in economic crisis and Central America burned with its own civil wars. Now, the region has shifted leftward and the FARC has seen several leftist leaders, including former guerrillas, win presidencies. Hugo Chávez’s re-election in Venezuela, which will have “accompaniment” status in Havana, bodes especially well for the talks.

The geopolitical shift also means that there are other regional multilateral bodies other than the traditionally U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS). More autonomous Latin American multilateral organizations could help counterbalance U.S. intransigence (e.g. on the drugs issues) and they could also become pivotal partners in the implementation phase of the accords—if we get that far.

I hope with all my hope that we do.

In Colombia, you have to pretty much be in your 70s to truly remember a country not at war with itself. Cycles of violence have been endless since the 1940s—well-before the FARC was formally named in 1964. This deeply rooted violence will not end with the FARC, but it would be an unimaginably huge first step.

In the land that gave birth to magical realism I suppose anything’s possible.

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