The peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) may be closer to an end than it has ever been.
On July 20, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos began reducing military operations against the guerrilla. The decision was announced a week earlier from Havana, Cuba, where the government’s delegations and the FARC’s counterpart had been negotiating the end of Colombia’s armed conflict.
The de-escalation of military offensives coincided with the unilateral ceasefire the guerrilla commenced on the same day, set to be implemented from July 20 for the next four months.
It is the second unilateral truce the guerrilla have started since the beginning of peace talks with Santos’ government.
The decisions taken by Santos and the FARC came at the most critical moment the talks had witnessed in over two and a half years. After the guerrilla had announced a first unilateral ceasefire on December 20, a step which had been rewarded by Santos’ suspension of air-strikes against FARC settlements, the talks had fallen into a deep crisis.
On April 15, FARC militia killed 11 soldiers in the department of Cauca, injuring 24 others. Santos’ government resumed air-strikes against the guerrilla, killing 26 FARC rebels on May 22, leading the insurgent group to suspend the truce.
Since the end of the FARC’s first ceasefire, the violence associated with Colombia’s conflict had reached the highest level of the past three years. In less than two months, clashes between the Army and the guerrilla led to the death of two civilians, thirteen police officers and nine soldiers.
The monthly average of FARC offensives against the Armed Forces recorded during last June was the highest since the beginning of the peace process.
The guerrilla also began to destroy oil infrastructure in the south of the country, causing irreparable damage to the environment and local populations.
The de-escalation of warfare carried out by Santos’ government and the guerrilla may help to bring the peace process back to the path it had taken earlier this year.
The FARC’s hope is that the government may eventually accept a bilateral truce, involving both the Armed Forces and the rebel group.
However, Colombian government has reiterated that the reduction of strikes against the FARC may lead to a definite ceasefire only if the guerrilla will respect the truce started on July 20.
A bilateral ceasefire may allow Santos to do away with the dichotomy upon which the peace talks have been premised thus far, that is, the need to carry out peace talks in Cuba in the middle of an armed conflict at home. But doubts remain.
Firstly, it is not at all clear whether the guerrilla has the power to control its many groups deployed within the country, and ensure that a potential bilateral truce could be observed by all rebels.
Secondly, a bilateral truce can be a promising step forward, but only if it can be monitored by a neutral body under the coordination of the international community. An external actor with the political, military or moral weight to supervise a bilateral truce can raise the costs of failure for both sides, and thus strengthen its chances of survival.
Should a bilateral agreement finally be reached, Santos has already confirmed that Uruguay and the United Nations would both be involved in carrying out its supervision.
“Peace will not be built in Havana,”
Whatever the strategy the government chooses to adopt in the next few months, the peace process cannot be narrowed down to a mere discussion into the ways in which the guerrilla and the state should down their weapons.
A definite truce between the two sides will be a crucial step forward, inasmuch as it will lead to a reduction of violence and possibly accelerate the end of the talks.
But the ceasefire cannot overrule the many other chapters which the peace talks have opened, and which the government should begin working on, independent of what happens in Cuba.
Building durable peace requires rebuilding citizens’ trust in the state. Peace will not be built in Havana, but in the regions where the agreements will be eventually implemented.
Yet, the central government’s relationship with the Colombia’s interior has been historically problematic.
The 1991 Constitution sought to decentralize power and grant more autonomy to regions and municipalities. But the shift has been, at best, cosmetic: development programs are still dictated from Bogota’s Ministries and implemented across the territories in a top-down fashion, with little or no care of the regions’ needs.
Many of country’s territories have historically presented themselves as a problem, that is, as no-mans-lands plagued by illegal armed groups whose presence had to be fought.
Throughout these regions, the state has thus appeared to the eyes of civilians through its coercive vest.
Meeting the challenge?
For citizens, central government is an imaginary presence, linked to the Armed Forces. Both are undertaking the task of eradicating armed threats.
Many local institutions have been gradually infiltrated by illegal actors, offering local politicians protection in exchange for favors. These agreements undermine the state’s monopoly of violence and its credible social fabric.
That same state will now have to verify the implementation of what will be agreed with the guerrilla in Cuba, and eventually promote and sustain citizen participation programs.
In other words, the state will have to switch its coercive vest and embrace a more socially-oriented dress. But, this shift will only be possible if central government is able to regain a level of credibility which enables it to carry out the new tasks as a result of Cuba’s treaty.
This will require the purification of local institutions from the influence of illegal armed groups, and ensuring justice is granted, meeting the needs of the territories most affected by the conflict.
Peace and the state
Santos’ government, independent of the results from the talks in Cuba, will have to deal with this difficult task: changing the state’s image and its relationship with local governments, so as to re-gain the legitimacy needed to deal with the challenges the post-conflict stage will bring about.
In the last few months, the support for the peace process has dropped dramatically. According to a Gallup poll published this June, 62 percent of Colombians do not believe the peace agreement will be signed, and 46 percent would prefer a military solution to the conflict, while 45 percent still have faith in the talks with the guerrilla. Santos’ own support has dropped from 43 percent this February to 28 percent four months later.
If this peace treaty truly requires the support of all Colombians, as Santos has reiterated at length, upsetting these trends will be key to ensure that legitimate peace comes out of Cuba.
The de-escalation of the armed conflict carried out by the government and the guerrilla is a crucial step forward. But the extent to which this decision may strengthen the peace talks will ultimately depend on the willingness of both sides to bring the negotiations back to the track they had taken earlier this year.
This, for Santos’ government, will not only imply setting the terms for a truce, but rethinking the role of the state in areas of more acute conflict.
Cuba will not mark the end of the negotiations with the FARC, but the beginning of a new stage, wherein peace will last only if it will be supported by a State capable of restructuring the relationship with its regions and with the victims a 51-year-old conflict has left behind.
A prior version of this article can be found here.