Hope and Expectation in Colombia

            This is a moment of tremendous hope and expectation in Colombia.  Following a year-and-a half of quiet confidence-building measures and six months of secret exploratory talks in Cuba, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño (aka Timoleón Jiménez, aka “Timochenko”) announced that the Colombian government and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC-EP) have agreed to begin peace talks next month.  This will be the first time in more than ten years that formal peace talks with the FARC will take place.  Since wars are generally ended by either military victory or a peace accord, and a military victory by either side has been elusive for nearly half a century, the decision to pursue a peace accord now provides hope that the dark era of war may finally come to a close in Colombia.  This will not be an instantaneous process, but a peace agreement that is taken seriously by all sides can create a new environment where social change can be secured without violence.

Havana Accord 

The “General Accord to End the Conflict and Build a Stable, Enduring Peace,” signed on August 26 at the end the exploratory talks in Havana and made public on Tuesday, September 4, attests to the commitment of both parties to end Colombia’s forty-eight year old conflict.  The “General Accord” is not a peace accord, but a framework agreement that attests to the commitment of each side to pursue a peace accord.  The agreement details the agenda to be discussed during the peace talks, a timetable, a roadmap for next steps–including establishing mechanisms for implementation and verification of agreements as well as mechanisms for resolving conflicts that may come up during the talks–and a range of other topics that will be further refined in the course of the talks. The agreement provides a flexible structure that will enable the process to move forward, and articulates a role for the international community in facilitating and guaranteeing the process.

The fact that an agenda has been defined before the official talks begin is already quite significant.  The parties have agreed to address five major points, namely, land policies, political participation, the end of the conflict (this would include among other things questions of ceasefires and cessation of hostilities, security guarantees, and addressing paramilitary violence), drug production and trafficking, and truth and reparations for victims.

Next Steps

            The process is moving forward quickly and is expected to be completed in a matter of “months, not years,” according to PresidentSantos.  Much of the preparatory work is in place. The Attorney General announced this week that arrest warrants will be suspended for those guerrillas who participate in the peace talks.  According to the Havana framework agreement, each negotiating team has the option of naming up to 10 negotiators, of which five will be full plenipotentiaries, and each party can have up to 30 members on their delegation.  Yesterday, the government named Humberto de la Calle as its lead negotiator, and announced that its negotiating team would include Luis Carlos Villegas, president of the National Association of Industrialists; Oscar Naranjo, ex-director of the National Police; Jorge Enrique Mora, ex-commander of the Armed Forces; Frank Pearl, ex-Minister of the Environment and former High Commissioner for Re-Integration; and Sergio Jaramillo, former head of National Security, who will now become the High Commissioner for Peace.

FARC Press Conference

This morning, I watched as FARC participants in the exploratory process in Cuba held their own press conference in Havana, where they disclosed the names of the three members of their negotiating team who have been elected thus far—Iván Márquez, of the FARC Secretariat; Jesús Santrich, of the FARC Central Command; and Simón Trinidad, a FARC political leader serving a 60-year sentence  in U.S. prison. Before  a full house of journalists at Havana’s conference center, FARC leaders discussed their hopes and aspirations for peace, and answered a wide range of sometimes provocative questions related to hostages and kidnappings, negotiating during ongoing warfare, the structural reforms they are seeking, drug-trafficking, and FARC opposition in principle to extraditions.  Mauricio Jaramillo, one of the FARC political leaders and a spokesman at the press conference, also announced that the FARC negotiators plan to propose and fight for a bilateral ceasefire agreement at the October 8th talks.  This does counter the agreed agenda, which would reserve discussion of a ceasefire until after the land issue had been decided.  Nonetheless, a ceasefire agreement would give considerable relief to those living where conflict is most intense, and the two negotiating teams will undoubtedly work this out.

Role of the International Community

It is a bit early to know what the role of the international community will be.  In the first exploratory phase in Cuba, the governments of Cuba and Norway served as the principle guarantors of the process, and Venezuela facilitated the logistics and accompanied the process.  Cuba and Norway will continue to be guarantors and Venezuela and Chile (and perhaps others to be mutually agreed upon) will also accompany the next phase of the process in Oslo.  Given the agenda items, particularly relating to drug-trafficking, and the FARC’s determination to have Simón Trinidad participate on their negotiating delegation, the United States may have a role to play as well, though it is likely to be behind the scenes.  Many have offered their support to the process already, and new roles are likely to emerge in this new phase.

Challenges Ahead

This is an amazing time in Colombia’s history and I remain cautiously optimistic.  The process will likely need to open up to greater participation of civil society, but how this will happen has yet to be defined.

While it is reassuring that many issues seem to have been discussed in the last two years of private consultations, and that an agenda for talks has been agreed, nothing can be taken for granted.  We shouldn’t underestimate the opposition that may garner force as a peace process moves forward.  Former President Alvaro Uribe and his supporters, including sectors of the military, have made clear their opposition to peace talks.  Past peace processes have been stymied by such opposition.  If the agreement really addresses issues of inequity and structural change, powerful sectors of Colombian society are likely to feel threatened.  As someone once told me, “When peace comes to Colombia, a lot of people will be taking a pay cut.”

The road ahead may be bumpier than anticipated and will require considerable patience, and recognition that this is a process.  “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” the parties concluded in the Havana framework accord.

The war is not over, in fact, it is intensifying.  Peace talks do not always lead to peace, and as Colombia’s last experience with peace talks a decade ago revealed, can lead to more war.  Both sides are aware of this history and have underscored their determination not to repeat the mistakes of the past. (See my earlier blog posts on this topic.)

The public yearns for peace but remains understandably skeptical, particularly since the war is likely to intensify in the short term–or until a final accord is reached.  Once a cessation of hostilities occurs and an accord is finalized, the  real work of peace-building, recovery, and reconciliation will begin.

Welcome Signs

There are welcome signs that things will be different this time around.  The care and professionalism with which the process has been undertaken has ensured the safe, secure environment required at this early stage.  The quality and breadth of the negotiating teams, and the fact that agreements have already been reached and signed are promising steps.  The commitment to learn from past lessons is important, and the decisions not to have a demilitarized zone and to hold talks outside of Colombia are prudent examples of lessons learned.  Political will and commitment to the same endgame of ending the conflict seems to exist on both sides, and an attitude of mutual respect can be seen in the discourses of both parties.  Finally, the current national and international contexts seem more propitious for peace in Colombia than they have been in years.  All of these factors suggest that this time peace may be possible, but the work is just beginning in earnest.

About Ginny Bouvier

Love reading, writing, thinking, and working with people to make the world a better place. Family and friends, yoga, travel, photography, perusing dessert menus keep me sane. Latin American enthusiast. Peace practitioner yearning for justice. Heading up the Colombia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, but tweets and posts are my own.
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4 Responses to Hope and Expectation in Colombia

  1. Gini,

    Gracias por tu interes en la paz de Colombia. Me ha gustado mucho tu artículo, especialmente los desafíos futuros de las negociaciones de paz.

    Esperanza Hernandez


  2. Charley047 says:

    The FARC negotiator has stated their demand for amnesty and freedom from extradition. I didn’t see this addressed in your article.


    • Thanks for your comment. I have not seen that any FARC negotiators have made any demands at this stage. In fact, the talks have not yet started, so no demands are yet on the table. It does not appear in the general framework accord signed in Havana. If you have a direct reference of who said what, when, and in what context, please send it to me.


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