For Santos, and Colombia, Time Running Out on FARC Talks
Frida Ghitis - July 16, 2015
Now that negotiators have walked to the brink and returned with signed documents on two major international crises—Iran’s nuclear program and Greece’s debt—it’s time to look at another historic diplomatic effort that appears to be hanging by a thread: peace talks aimed at ending the world’s longest-running conflict, the war between the Colombian government and the FARC insurgency.
The war has already lasted half a century, outliving countless revolutionary movements in poor countries and outlasting the Soviet-led push for a global workers’ revolution by decades. In the past three years, much of the contest has shifted from battlefields in the Colombian countryside to a negotiating table in Cuba, where both sides have tried to hammer out a comprehensive deal to bring an end to generations of fighting.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has made the peace process the centerpiece of his administration. But to put it bluntly, it’s not going well.
That, at least, is what the Colombian people say. Pessimism has reached new heights, according to pollsters. And not surprisingly, the president’s approval rating is scraping bottom.
Interestingly, Santos’ approval ratings have slipped far below those of his once-mentor and now harshest critic, former President Alvaro Uribe, who has made the obliteration of the FARC the driving force of his political career. A new Gallup poll shows that approval for Santos is down to 28 percent, a steep decline from February, when it stood at 43 percent. Uribe, now a senator and relentless critic of the president and the peace process, has a 57 percent approval rating.
The same poll showed only 33 percent of Colombians think the talks will produce an agreement that ends the conflict, and 77 percent say the situation is getting worse.
It’s hardly surprising that pessimism now reigns. Despite the talks, violence has flared up again in recent months. The independent Conflict Analysis Resource Center says June was the most violent month in Colombia since the start of peace talks in 2012. And it was that upsurge that produced one of the most troubling findings of the survey: For the first time, the number of Colombians in favor of abandoning talks and defeating the FARC militarily outweighs the number in favor of persevering with diplomacy.
To be sure, Colombians are fed up with the war and violence. More than anything, they are fed up with the FARC. What was once a legitimate guerrilla movement motivated by the pursuit of social justice now has practically no support. That is particularly remarkable in a country that is rife with poverty and inequality. But almost no one believes the FARC truly cares about the poor. The prevailing view is that the group is now made up of criminals, drug traffickers mostly, concerned with enriching themselves and saving their own skins.
The Gallup survey found that an astonishing 93 percent of Colombians have an unfavorable view of the guerrillas.
The talks nearly collapsed in recent weeks after the FARC abandoned a unilateral cease-fire that it declared last December. In April, FARC units attacked an army platoon, killing 10 soldiers. Fighting intensified, and government forces killed dozens of guerrillas in one particularly bloody incident in May. In June, the FARC launched more than 80 separate attacks. It killed at least 14 soldiers and destroyed vital infrastructure in the type of operations that in the past spooked foreign investors and caused the Colombian economy to plunge into recession. It also bombed electrical facilities, cutting off electricity supplies to hundreds of thousands of mostly poor people, and attacked oil pipelines and oil tankers, causing them to spill into rivers and cause massive environmental damage with disastrous consequences for rural populations.
It was that wave of attacks that made so many in Colombia say it’s time to defeat the FARC on the battlefield—as Uribe nearly did while he was president and still insists is the right approach—instead of allowing the talks in Cuba to go on indefinitely. Opinion writers dripped with sarcasm, wondering how much longer the negotiators’ years-long taxpayer-funded Caribbean vacation would continue.
Why did the FARC suddenly decide to go on the offensive? Many, including Santos, believe it wants to force the government to accept a complete bilateral cease-fire, which would allow the much-weakened group to rearm. When a top FARC operative known by the nom-de-guerre Timochenko called for a bilateral truce, Santos shot back, “If with these cowardly, foolish acts the FARC intend to take me to a bilateral ceasefire, they are mistaken.”
But soon thereafter the FARC and the government announced they had agreed to “de-escalate” the conflict, and the president, aware that the Colombian people are turning sour on the talks, set something that sounds a bit like a deadline, but really isn’t one. “In four months,” Santos said, “I will make a decision on whether we continue with the talks or not.”
Either way, unless there are concrete signs that the talks are on the verge of a deal that is acceptable to most Colombians, there is a good chance the public will have reached the end of its patience.
The talks have bogged down on the issues that affect FARC members most directly. Negotiators have already agreed on three of five issues on the table, those dealing with land reform, drug trafficking and political participation by future ex-FARC members. But what’s left is personal. It deals with how to unwind the FARC organization as well as whether and how to punish people who committed grave crimes as members of the rebel army.
The issue is not only close to the hearts of FARC negotiators, who obviously wish to avoid jail terms. It is also important to Colombians, particularly those who were direct victims of the group’s atrocities in a war that killed tens of thousands. In the Gallup poll, 85 percent opposed allowing FARC members to enter politics unless they serve time in prison for their crimes.
If the peace process collapses, the FARC has little chance of ever winning on the battlefield. But launching an all-out military assault against the guerrillas would bring a new set of risks and costs for the government. Nevertheless, the calendar and public opinion mean the talks cannot go on indefinitely. For Santos, and for Colombia, there is a feeling that time is running out.
Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.