October 11, 2013
Earlier this week, President Juan Manuel Santos surveyed the leading politicians of his party, the Social Party of National Unity (the “U” Party), and the Liberal Party. He asked whether they thought it would be better to leave the peace table, suspend talks during the upcoming electoral period, or continue the talks without interruption. The majority consulted prefer to maintain the talks, though suspension of the talks came in a close second.
Shortly after what amounted to a vote of confidence to continue the talks, Santos announced that he expects “major advances” at the table by November 18, and that he would discuss the issue again when the government negotiators return to Bogotá next week. The November 25 deadline for Santos to announce his candidacy for a second presidential term is fast approaching.
In light of the President’s consultation, on October 9, a Silla Vacía correspondent at a press conference in Havana asked FARC negotiator Jesús Emilio Carvajalino, aka “Andrés París,” about the FARC’s position on a possible suspension of the talks. París responded that the FARC would be willing to suspend the talks during the electoral period if this would help the peace talks, noting also that they hope to produce results by November 18th. (“Ojalá pudiéramos para esta fecha cerrar el punto de participación política o, si se quiere, todos los puntos de la agenda,” he said.) He underscored that any decision should be discussed in Havana and be the result of a consensus by the parties at the table.
The suspension of the talks has not been under discussion at the peace table in Havana, according to inquiries made by Silla Vacía. Nonetheless, the media and politicians suddenly began debating the idea of suspending the talks. (See the coverage in El Espectador, El Tiempo, El Colombiano, and Caracol Radio).
The overblown reactions are telling. First, they reveal a multitude of complex political interests, as politicians sort out how a peace agreement or lack thereof is likely to affect their own political fortunes. Second, in the absence of news from the peace tables, the rumblings about a possible interruption fill a news vacuum and give the media a way to report on the peace talks. Third, the debates over the future of the talks confirm the growing sense that an accord may not be produced in this President’s tenure, and underscore the elusive fear that a negotiated solution will not be forthcoming. More broadly, they reflect the generalized frustration with an ongoing war and the perceived lack of concrete results at the table. The ghosts of Caguán continue to haunt the Colombian psyche.
This polemic could engender its own political momentum or it could die down of its own accord. Suspension of the talks may be just a trial balloon, but if the idea continues to gain traction, it may have dire and perhaps unintended consequences. Interrupting the talks could incur huge costs both for the legitimacy of the current process and the credibility of future negotiations. National University professor Alejo Vargas warned that suspension of the talks would be a “disaster,” and noted that earlier precedents in Tlaxcala show that the suspension of peace talks does not work in Colombia. Past history also suggests that a suspension of talks with the FARC could negatively impact incipient peace initiatives with the ELN. In a sobering Semana article, ex-ELN leader Carlos Velandia describes the anticipated tragic human costs of ten more years of war in terms of death, injuries, and displacement, to say nothing of fiscal expense.
Hopefully cooler heads will prevail and the polemics around the future of the talks will not distract those at the table in Havana, who need to stay focused on producing the agreements needed to end the conflict. Otherwise, promises by civil society to hold the parties accountable to their commitment to stay at the table until an agreement is reached may need to be called in.
Progress at the Table
We should be careful nonetheless not to infer from the unfolding debates that progress is not being made at the peace table. On the contrary, the negotiators have continued to voice their optimism that discussions are moving in the right direction. The FARC’s October 3 report, “The First Report on the Status of the Peace Talks,” attests to the efforts of both sides to reconcile their different visions and approaches to the development of the country. The report notes that although “the gains are modest,” the FARC have presented more than 200 proposals on the first two agenda items, rural agrarian development and political participation, and the parties have drafted more than 25 pages of partial agreements thus far. The theme of political participation in this 15th cycle of talks continues to be particularly difficult. Partial accords have been drafted, however, and there is hope that agreements on this item will be forthcoming.
The vulnerability of the talks to political attack has been accentuated in light of the upcoming elections, and it will only get worse. Former President Alvaro Uribe, who has thrown his hat into the ring for a Senate seat for the Center Democratic Party, has been conducting a particularly vitriolic campaign from his well-followed Twitter account. (See the Washington Post feature about Uribe’s role in undermining the peace process.) Two recent tweets charged Santos with making deceptive secret accords that include promises of impunity. (“PteSantos No suspende diálogo por terrorismo Si por cálculos electorales Engaña con acuerdos secretos;” “PteSantos ordena atacar terroristas a quienes llama actores políticos,ofrece impunidad y les encubre delitos. Muchos no le creemos.”) In the Washington Post article, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chair of the appropriations subcommittee that funds aid to Colombia, called out “some Colombian politicians” for seeking “to sabotage a process that may be Colombia’s best hope to finally put an end to decades of violence.”
A more rigorous campaign to strengthen public support for the peace talks–and for the long-term structural changes that will sustain it–is clearly needed.