How to End a Peace Process Without Actually Saying So
Since October, when he became the presidential candidate of Ex-President Álvaro Uribe’s right-wing opposition party in Colombia, Óscar Iván Zuluaga has sworn to end the Colombian government’s peace talks with the FARC guerrilla group in Havana, Cuba. “I have said that we have to end this and end it now,” Zuluaga said after his nomination, adding that the negotiations were “born dead” and that Colombia’s state “cannot negotiate on equal terms with an organization that keeps committing terrorist acts and recruiting children.”
On Wednesday, three days after winning the first round of the presidential vote, Zuluaga changed his position on the talks—somewhat. As part of a deal to win second-round support from Conservative Party candidate Marta Lucía Ramírez, who finished third on Sunday, Zuluaga said that if elected he would “continue conversing” in Havana.
Actually, despite headlines of a “180-degree turn,” Zuluaga’s shift is not dramatic. Before, he said that he would suspend the negotiations if the FARC did not unilaterally cease all hostilities within a week. Now, the agreement between Zuluaga and Ramírez would continue the peace talks for a month, unless the FARC meets a series of conditions.
These conditions, listed below, are politically appealing. They demand that the FARC take several humanitarian steps that it should be taking anyway, ceasing child recruitment, landmine use, attacks on civilian targets, and similar restraint.
But unfortunately, this package of demands is a dealbreaker.
Without a doubt, President Juan Manuel Santos would be delighted to negotiate with the FARC under the circumstances that Zuluaga suggests. He is not doing so, though, because the Colombian government has not defeated the FARC. This is not a negotiation of surrender terms. Colombia’s armed forces have weakened the guerrillas, but they remain active and wealthy enough that their leaders may prefer to get up from the table. The FARC has no chance of taking power through violence, but its 7,000-8,000 fighters and steady income from drugs, mining, and extortion make “keep fighting” a viable enough alternative to submission.
Candidate Zuluaga’s conditions are a brilliant political move: to a semi-engaged Colombian voter, they give the impression that it is possible to have peace with the FARC while radically improving their behavior now. It’s like promising voters they can eat all the ice cream they want without gaining weight. And it leaves President Santos counseling Colombians to eat their vegetables within the peace talks’ current framework.
Why are these conditions a dealbreaker? Let’s look at them.
a. First, we will evaluate what was discussed on the three points that, according to public reports, have been completed, and we will make our evaluation known to public opinion.
In other words, the Zuluaga government reserves the right to reject what was agreed in the negotiations’ first three (of five) substantive agenda points, effectively rolling the talks back to where they were in October 2012. It is hard to imagine the guerrillas accepting this.
b. In the first month we will request, as tangible displays of peace to continue with the process, the following conditions that respond to citizens’ clamor:
1. Immediately stop the recruitment of minors.
2. Stop laying antipersonnel mines, and deliver to the government the maps of minefields in order to begin immediate demeaning.
These demands, while eminently reasonable, are impossible to verify. And they could snarl the talks anytime word emerges that a guerrilla unit somewhere in the country may have recruited an underage person or used an IED.
The guerrillas deserve sharp condemnation for using anti-personnel mines, and Colombia’s armed forces deserve praise for abandoning their use. But as the FARC uses minefields as an “asymmetrical warfare” tactic to protect the encampments of some of their top leaders, it is doubtful that they will agree to turn over “maps of minefields,” which would leave those leaders more vulnerable.
3. Stop terrorist attacks against the population.
4. Stop war crimes.
5. Suspend attacks on infrastructure.
The guerrillas would be likely to agree to these conditions as part of a larger, bilateral cease-fire—something they have been advocating since the talks started. But note that Zuluaga is not proposing a cease-fire here. The FARC would remain at liberty to hit military and police targets around the country without jeopardizing the talks. And the military’s hands would not be tied, it would remain free to go on the offensive against the FARC.
6. The government will agree with the FARC on a fixed time period for negotiations.
This is a demand that the guerrillas have always rejected. And it is almost meaningless anyway, because extensions are always obtained easily by last-minute moves that leave the impression that the talks have momentum. “We’ve gotten this far, we can’t abandon the process now.”
Besides, the FARC faces a sort of natural deadline for the talks anyway. Colombia holds municipal and departmental elections in October 2015. These would be the guerrillas’ last chance to run candidates for public office until March 2018 congressional elections. Given that it would take a few months for legal approval of peace accords and the registry of FARC-tied candidates, the process needs to finish in about a year in order for those candidates to run in October 2015.
7. We will insist on the FARC’s compliance with its commitment to cease kidnapping and extortion, and on the necessity for this group to cease activities related to narcotrafficking.
Again, this is politically attractive, but impossible to verify and could easily snarl the talks. Also, fully ceasing such activities would require the FARC’s leadership to exercise a degree of command and control that even Colombia’s security forces don’t have, as numerous scandals have revealed local police and military officials’ own relationships to narcotrafficking.
Still, this is a brilliant political move on the part of Oscar Iván Zuluaga. It leaves President Santos in the uncomfortable position of defending a peace process that tacitly tolerates some child recruitment, landmines, narcotrafficking, and similar crimes.
This is, of course, not because Santos is a poor negotiator. It’s because, 14 years after Plan Colombia and 12 years after Álvaro Uribe’s Democratic Security offensive, the FARC are still not defeated—and battlefield defeat remains a years-away prospect.
Will Colombian voters get this kind of complexity? Zuluaga and Uribe are betting that they won’t, and that the peace process will end.