Taking Stock of the Peace Talks in Havana

Just over five months ago, formal peace talks began between the government of Colombia and the FARC-EP guerrillas.  The reviews coming in from Havana, where the seventh round of talks was completed last Thursday, suggest that the parties have developed a good working rhythm and collegial relations that bode well for reaching a peace accord.   While there was some disappointment that the talks did not produce the anticipated agreement on the land issue, this does not mean that progress has not been made.  The parties are expected to resume talks on April 2. 

Optimism from Havana

At a recent roundtable discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Colombian Congressman Iván Cepeda, chair of the Peace Commission of the Colombian House of Representatives, shared his optimism that an agreement on the first item on the peace agenda—agrarian development–would soon be forthcoming. Congressman Cepeda had just returned from Havana, where he was invited, along with five other members of the Peace Commissions of the Colombian Congress, to meet with the negotiating teams.  He noted that there have been advances at the table and that the sides seem to be developing more flexible positions.  (See event write-up here.)

While agreements have not yet been signed, there are many reasons to be optimistic.   First, the parties themselves seem pleased with the rhythm of their work and the progress they are making.  They have expressed satisfaction that their pace will produce a final result in a timely manner.  Both sides appear committed to moving the process along as quickly as possible.

Second, the parties have announced that they have reached preliminary consensus on agrarian development policy–no small task when one considers that the land issue has been at the heart of the conflict for decades.  The parties have different diagnoses and different proposals for addressing the land issue. Nonetheless, the parties today agree that rural poverty continues to be a root cause of the Colombian conflict and that they are prepared to seek transformation of the countryside.  Such consensus is a major milestone.

Third, the Acuerdo general para la terminación del conflicto y la construcción de una paz estable y duradera signed by Colombian government and FARC-EP representatives in August 2012 has proven to be an effective structure for moving forward.  The parties have a roadmap and a methodology and have been persistently working their way through the various subtopics within the first agenda item including land use and access to land, unproductive lands, formalizing landownership, agrarian frontiers and protecting peasant enclaves (zonas de reserva campesina).  A week ago, the parties indicated that they had made advances on each of these issues.

Government and FARC-EP negotiators Humberto de la Calle and Iván Márquez, respectively, have noted that discrepancies remain between the parties on a variety of positions, including energy and mining policies (and whether these issues should even be considered by the table), foreign land ownership guidelines, the size of permissible landholdings, and the autonomy of the peasant reserves.  While such discrepancies have yet to be ironed out, the parties have expressed optimism that these can be resolved in a timely manner.  (See “Desacuerdos pendientes.”)

Confidence Building among the Parties

The parties’ optimism is at least partially due to a web of gestures and actions that they have constructed over the last 2-1/2 years. (See my article on confidence-building mechanisms in the exploratory phase of the talks published in EnglishSpanish, and Catalan.)

In addition to the quid pro quo of political actions I described in the aforementioned article, searching for a common vision for the future of Colombia has also helped to consolidate trust at the table.  The parties now have a variety of common experiences.  They jointly constructed a roadmap and a website.  They have socialized over cocktails and dinners during the initial launching of the talks in Oslo and shared cigarettes and Cuban cigars in the corridors of Havana’s convention center.  FARC commander Iván Márquez and former Colombian Armed Forces chief Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora are said to treat each other with the utmost respect and have reportedly joked about times when their paths crossed on the battlefield.  Such exchanges undoubtedly smooth the way for the difficult work of coming to agreements and articulating  differences over issues that have been at the root of Colombia’s armed conflict for decades. (See María Jimena Duzán’s assessment here.)

The parties’ confidence has been tested throughout the process as well.  The formation of new teams once the talks became formalized required initiating newcomers into this culture of agreed rules and confidence-building.  A press interview given by Enrique Santos Calderón, a participant in the secret talks in Havana, unleashed a series of charges by the FARC that Santos had violated the secrecy provisions laid out in the general framework agreement signed in Havana last August, thus releasing the FARC from the agreed secrecy.  Ongoing battlefield violence, especially the killing of FARC leader Alfonso Cano and the renewal of violence following the end of the FARC’s unilateral ceasefire, has tested the resilience of the process as well as the patience of the public. So far the process is holding up well.

Having a good rapport between the parties is not sufficient in and of itself to resolve differences, but it is an important ingredient that seems to be present in Havana and will help the parties establish and honor mechanisms for moving forward.  It also provides a model for the kind of give-and-take and patience that will be required to reconcile Colombians once an accord is signed.

An Impatient Public

The pressure to reach agreements at the talks in Havana is intensifying.  With presidential elections in the offing for 2014, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has said the negotiations must bear fruit by November 2013 or he will call an end to the effort.  Santos will need to announce his candidacy for a second term before year’s end.

There is a clear disconnect between the relatively optimistic perceptions of the parties and those who meet with them in Havana, on the one side, and the broader Colombian public, which remains skeptical about whether the talks will produce the desired peace accord in a timely way.  Announcing the peace process last year caused Santos’s popularity to soar, but current polls show Santos’s support dropped from 53% in December 2012 to 44% in March 2013.  As conflict violence continues, Santos’s popularity may decline even more unless there are tangible signs of progress at the peace table.

Ex-president Alvaro Uribe continues to be a wild card in the equation and he has a strong following among influential land-owning, ranching, entrepreneurial, and military sectors who oppose the peace process.  Tensions between Santos and Uribe reached such heights late last year that one commentator called for a mediator to broker peace talks between Santos and Uribe.   Whether Uribe and his allies will be brought into the peace tent remains to be seen.

Preparations are under way for a national peace march on April 9th, Colombia’s National Victims’ Day.  This will provide an opportunity for the public to give the Santos government a clear mandate and reduce the political power of those opposing the peace process.  My next blog will examine civil society’s role in the peace process.

See USIP Re-Blog at http://www.usip.org/publications/colombia-peace-talks-signs-progress.

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.
This entry was posted in Colombia, Latin America, Peace, Peace Initiatives, peace processes, peace talks, Spanish America and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Taking Stock of the Peace Talks in Havana

  1. James C. Jones says:

    Excellent synthesis of where things are, Ginny. Thanks!



  2. Jane Mansfield Bouvier says:

    It’s good to have youf blog back!


  3. Ginny, this is a sensitive and cogently laid out analysis of the situation. Having just returned from the Andean Region, a Colombia/FARC agreement, or lack there of, and how it is implemented will have significant repercussions in the region. Congrats on a timely voice of reason, Maria Velez de Berliner, President, Latin Intelligence Corporation.


    • Thanks for your comments, Maria. The regional dimensions are probably more important if an agreement is not reached. My sense is that the international environment is still highly favorable for peace, more so than during previous efforts.


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