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Colombia’s Peace Process: Déjà Vu in a Polarized Country

The current peace process in Colombia between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC rebel group is unfolding in the midst of a polarized atmosphere. The kidnapping of two policemen by rebels only days before the dialogue in Cuba was to resume made evident the consequences of negotiating in an ongoing war. Even though the FARC considers the "right" to capture "prisoners of war" to be part of its confrontation against the state, it sews doubts - in the public and the government - about the commitment of this guerrilla group to the peace process. Only a few months ago the guerrillas had pledged their willingness to halt kidnappings. Kidnapping the policemen is only one of several actions, including kidnappings of civilians and attacks against infrastructures, taken by the FARC since the unilateral ceasefire ended in late January.

Most Colombians want the conflict to end and support the opening phase of the current peace process (71 percent according to Gallup). At the same time, however, citizens deeply mistrust the FARC and doubt that an agreement will actually be reached (54 percent say they are “pessimistic”). As in the strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, public opinion is enthusiastic and hopeful about reaching a long-awaited peace, but the long war and the failure of previous negotiations awaken its worst demons. With this mindset, those who support the current process do so with a cautious and fragile optimism, one that can dissipate in the absence of quick and tangible results.

Quick results matter because the decisions of the government are strongly related to the dynamics of public opinion, especially in a reelection scenario. President Santos has until November to decide if he is going to run for a second term in the 2013 elections. Enrique Santos, who helped to persuade the FARC to commit to negotiations, and Alejandro Santos, director of Semana magazine, agree that the time factor is the critical variable. They warn that if the peace process does not advance with concrete results, it could run out of oxygen. Under this scenario, the opposition headed by former president Álvaro Uribe, who openly opposes dialogue, might regain space in the political arena, conceivably winning a majority in Congress in the 2013 elections.

In the best scenario Colombians will have to decide in 2013 if they prefer to continue supporting a peace process with partial advances, since it’s impossible to think that the agenda will be fully developed during the next year, or if they will vote for the opposition and thus for war as the only way to finish the armed conflict. In the worst scenario, President Santos could halt the dialogue with the guerrilla and once again close the door to a negotiated peace. Despite the government’s commitment to stay at the table until the end of the process, terrorist actions-- especially more kidnappings, could derail peace talks.

This week, the president sent a clear message to the FARC: “The generals know they have to triple the number of actions until we finish this war either the easy way or the hard way." At the same time, military forces killed the commander of the FARC’s 5th Front, a person close to the FARC's chief negotiator, “Ivan Marquez”. Even as I write this blog, news media report that FARC rebels have killed three policemen in an ambush near the Venezuelan border and two soldiers were injured in an attack on a police station in the Department of Cauca. The terrible logic of the current process is that the parties believe that increasing armed actions strengthen their negotiating position, but armed actions can also end the negotiations. Can Colombian society endure this game?

What happened last week for Colombians is Déjà vu. While both parties talk about peace the daily reality for civilians in the country is an ongoing war. Colombian society will not support negotiations with the FARC while the daily news reports more and more violence. For public opinion tangible results mean real decreases in violent actions. Let’s hope that the guerrilla understands this message and doesn’t kick over the table by engaging in kidnappings and terrorist acts that victimize civilians.