Colombia’s Peace Gambit

BOGOTÁ – Two-thirds of Colombia’s population believes that the dialogue now taking place between the government of President Juan Manuel Santosand the rebel group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) might actually turn out to be successful.They believe that the conflict’s end could be in sight, with the FARC, possibly the world’s oldest extant guerilla organization, laying down its arms and joining the official political arena.

After 38 years of conflict, Colombians’ optimism is striking. Since 1982, at least three negotiation attempts have failed. The Unión Patriótica, a party created in the 1980’s as a vehicle for political participation by rebels, dissolved following the extermination of 1,500 of its members at the hands of unknown paramilitary forces.

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Then, in the 1990’s, the government abandoned negotiations when the FARC assassinated a former secretary of state. And, in 2002, the government ended a dialogue with the rebels after officials became convinced that the FARC did not seek peace, but wanted merely to take advantage of the 42,000-square-kilometer area that would be demilitarized for the negotiations.

After his election in 2002, President Álvaro Uribe pursued a hardline security policy, supported by the United States. The strategy was so popular that the constitution was amended to allow for Uribe’s reelection in 2006. While he was not allowed to run for a third term, no candidate in the 2010 election suggested altering his iron-fisted approach, or proposed renewing talks with the guerillas.

One of those candidates was Santos, Uribe’s former minister of defense, who had delivered some of the military’s hardest blows to the FARC. So, after championing the continuation of the hardline policy, his current strategy of negotiation is risky. Indeed, Santos and Uribe, members of the same political party and once close allies, are now embroiled in a bitter dispute, with Uribe emerging as Santos’s most visible opponent.

Yet, while an unprecedented share of the population supported Uribe’s strategy, and 90% of Colombians view the FARC negatively, public opinion has been largely supportive of Santos’s dialogue with the guerillas, albeit more from frustration than from appreciation of Santos’s pragmatism. Colombians are ready to hope that, this time, negotiations will produce results.

And they have. In the last six months, government and FARC representatives have met secretly in Havana to develop a road map for a second stage of dialogue in Oslo in early October, followed by a return to Havana for further talks. According to Santos, this new peace process is different, because it takes into account the lessons learned from past mistakes.

It is also taking place at a time when the government’s chances of reaching a compromise are more favorable. In the last decade, Uribe’s government made great strides in weakening the FARC. The number of combatants has fallen by two-thirds, four important FARC leaders have been eliminated, and the group’s ties to drug trafficking and kidnapping have undermined its image in Colombia and elsewhere.

Furthermore, with US support, Colombia’s armed forces have become stronger, owing to modernization of military equipment and doctrine, an increase in the number of soldiers, and improved training. As a result, armed conflict is becoming increasingly costly for the rebels. Indeed, unlike in 2002, when the FARC could make impossible demands on the government, today’s environment favors the state, forcing the rebels to keep their demands realistic.

The FARC is unlikely to stage a media spectacle at the meetings in Norway and Cuba. The agenda will focus on ending the conflict, without endless discussion of theoretical or doctrinaire questions. And two retired generals will participate, making the Colombian armed forces more likely to support any agreement.

To be sure, obstacles remain. A ceasefire will not accompany the talks. The FARC have not repudiated the possibility of seizing power by force. Their radical ideology is obvious, and their willingness to forgive the casualties and suffering of a long and brutal conflict is unknown.

There is no guarantee that Santos’s strategy will succeed. But Colombians have earned a genuine opportunity to end their country’s conflict. That is no small reason for optimism in a country torn apart by decades of violence.