Back on Track: Colombian Peace Talks Resume Today in Havana

Dec. 10, 2014

The peace delegations of the government of Colombia and the FARC-EP return to the table in Havana to resume talks today, thereby putting an end to the crisis that was precipitated by the detention of a high-ranking military officer in Chocó three weeks ago.  The detention on Nov. 16 of General Rubén Darío Alzáte, commander of the Titan Task Force, and his two companions, José Rodríguez Contreras and Gloria Urrego, had prompted the Colombian government to suspend the peace talks in Havana before the last session began.  (See my earlier posts for details of the crisis.)

Agenda of the 31st Cycle

During the 31st cycle, the technical sub-commission on ending the conflict will continue its work, as will the commission on the conflict and its victims.  On Dec. 15, the parties will receive the first delegation of organizations related to the gender sub-commission, and on Dec. 16, the fifth and final delegation of victims will participate at the peace table.  The 31st cycle is expected to end on Dec. 17, and the next round of talks has been announced for the second half of January 2015.

The Resolution of the Crisis

With the intervention of the Norwegians, Cubans, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the resolution of last month’s crisis was carried out quickly and quietly.  Within days of the suspension of the talks on Nov. 16, protocols for a humanitarian agreement were signed and two FARC leaders — Pastor Alape and Carlos Lozano — were authorized to leave the table and return to Arauca and Chocó in order to facilitate the releases of those who had been captured in their respective commands.  On Nov. 24, FARC Commander Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri (“Timochenko”) announced that with the suspension of the talks, President Santos had “overturned the table where we were playing,” and thus made renewal of the talks impossible without some unspecified “considerations.”  These adjustments, however, appear to have been made and the crisis resolved with tremendous agility through a series of agreements, protocols, and mediations.

Arauca Releases

On Nov. 25, the FARC turned Paulo César Rivera y Jonathan Andrés Díaz, the two soldiers who had been captured in combat in Arauca on Nov. 9, over to ICRC representatives, and announced that they had “completed the goals of the first phase of the Special Humanitarian Agreement,” and FARC leaders called on the Colombian military to cease their operations in Chocó, as had been agreed, in order to minimize the risks associated with the anticipated releases in that zone. (See the FARC press release here.)  Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos noted that the Arauca releases represent “an important step that demonstrates the maturity of the process and the gestures of peace that all Colombians are calling for,” he said.  (See his statement here.)

Chocó Releases 

On Nov. 29, the FARC delegation announced that they were activating a special humanitarian protocol for the release of those still being held in Chocó, and the next day, the FARC released General Alzate and his two companions.   The following day, the General was called to task for irregularities in the events that lead up to his detention.  (See relevant Foreign Policy article here.)  Alzate explained that he was working on  development alternatives for the Chocó region, including an alternative energy project on the Atrato River, and that, given the “suspicion of the community towards the Army,” he adopted security measures that included providing disinformation about his route and final destination and refusing accompaniment by his security team.  In keeping with this low-profile approach and in violation of security protocols, General Alzate traveled down  the Atrato River unarmed and dressed in civilian garb. (See related Semana article here.)  The General publicly recognized that he had violated security protocols (see my earlier post here) and tendered his resignation, which was duly accepted by President Santos.

Peace Process Evaluated

That same day, President Santos announced that members of the government delegation would return to Havana to evaluate the status of the process, its future direction, and “to make a cold objective evaluation of the process in order to see how we will continue.” (See President’s statement here.)  Santos noted that “although the measure taken by the FARC corresponds to their duty to act within the law, it is evident that that decision contributes to recovering a climate propitious for continuing the talks,  [and] demonstrates the maturity of the process.”

Lead negotiator Humberto de la Calle and Peace Commissioner Sergio Jaramillo thus returned to Havana on Monday, Nov. 30 to meet with their counterparts and discuss next steps.  They were accompanied by retired generals Jorge Mora (Army) and Oscar Naranjo (Police), who also form part of the government’s negotiating team, and met on Tuesday and Wednesday with their FARC negotiator counterparts — Iván Márquez, “Rodrigo Granda”, “Pablo Catatumbo” and “Pastor Alape”.  The FARC delegation for its part noted that “whoever imposed the suspension of the talks cannot come back with the pretension of also imposing the date of their resumption as though nothing had happened.  The rules that govern the momentum of the process will have to be re-designed, as the government broke them, rupturing in the process the bridge of trust that we had built.  From our side we are fully prepared to act accordingly, including the ability to permanently shield the talks, [through] agreeing an Armistice.” (See the FARC statement here and analysis from Semana here.)

Renewal of Talks 

After two days of discussion, on Dec. 3, the parties issued a joint statement that was read by the representatives of Cuba and Norway, who have accompanied the process since the start and were pivotal in brokering the resolution of the recent crisis.  The parties announced that talks would resume from Dec. 10-17, and that, “after conducting a joint analysis of the events of recent weeks, we consider the crisis to have been resolved.”  They agreed to establish a “standing mechanism, through the guarantor countries, to facilitate the solution of possible crises that might present themselves in the future.”  (See their joint statement here.)  Such a mechanism will help ensure that the process stays on track despite events outside the table.  On Monday, Dec. 8, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos noted in the XXIV Iberoamerican Summit of Heads of State and Government being held in Veracruz (México), that the negotiators will “renew their conversations in what I hope will be a very positive environment, that will allow us to advance even more rapidly.” (See statement here.)

Gestures of Peace

In the aftermath of last month’s suspension, both sides are now seeking “gestures of peace” to build confidence between the parties and with their broader constituencies.  The parties have agreed that the main priority of the 31st round of talks will be to “advance on the theme of de-escalation of the armed conflict, with the goal of reaching an agreement as quickly as possible.” (See joint statement here.)  President Santos reiterated that this is “an important step in building confidence and a better environment for being able to progress more rapidly, because this is another of our goals in settling this armed conflict completely and thus saving lives, saving suffering, and at last, after 50 years, having peace in our country.” (See President Santos’s statement here.)

Government negotiator Humberto de la Calle clarified further, “When we speak of de-escalation, we are talking about possible measures aimed at the end of the conflict.  We are not speaking of regularizing the war, but ending it.  And we are thinking that there might initially be measures, more of a humanitarian than a military nature, that might end up reducing the intensity of the confrontation.”  (See De la Calle’s statement here.) De la Calle expressed the hope that once the immediate crisis is surmounted, the pace of the talks in Havana might speed up.  “It is the moment for making decisions, it is time now to take concrete steps, rhetoric is not enough, we Colombians need to receive concrete, real evidence of peace, gestures, de-escalation; we have to move ourselves in that direction.” (See relevant article here.)

In a statement on Dec. 1, the FARC-EP peace delegation concurred. “We agree with the idea that it is time to pass from discussion to action, implying that at least we should begin to execute the transformations mentioned in the partial agreements and to slow down the promotion of laws that are contrary to them,” they noted.  (See FARC statement here.)

De-Escalation Gains Constituents

Consensus seems to be emerging around the need for de-escalation, though there are differences over exactly what that means.  ExPresident Alvaro Uribe and his followers, as well as Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez, are calling for a unilateral guerrilla ceasefire and the concentration of the guerrillas in a special demobilization zone.  The Central Command of the National Liberation Army (ELN), for its part, noted in a Dec. 9th communiqué on “Acclimatizing Colombia for Peace,” that it would be wiser to de-escalate the causes and practices which originated and reproduce [the conflict].”  (See the ELN statement here.)  Much of civil society, leftist politicians, and church people support a bilateral ceasefire, as does the FARC-EP.  (See for example the statement of the churches here or my prior post outlining civil society responses here.)

While the lack of a bilateral ceasefire allows President Santos to appease the military and squelch fears that the FARC will use a ceasefire for military advantage, FARC credibility suffers with each act of war that the guerrillas prosecute.  The FARC is clearly disadvantaged by the status quo in that their bellicose actions, unlike government military actions, are viewed as violating the spirit of the peace process.  Likewise, the continued violence more generally fuels public skepticism about the peace process.

To the extent that the war continues to be prosecuted, civil society’s simultaneous skepticism of and hope in the peace process continue to grow, particularly in the zones of greatest conflict where the human costs are highest.  A study by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) documented more than a thousand attacks, an average of 61 acts of war per month, in the period since peace talks began in Nov. 2012 and June 2014. (Read the report here.) Likewise, the report notes that there have been more than 310,000 new victims of the armed conflict in that same time frame.  This number includes 305,624 victims of displacement, and includes actions by both criminal bands (which the government does not consider as conflict actors) and guerrillas, with the latter the primary culprits of forced displacement, according to the report.  Government statistics from the Unit for the Attention and Integral Reparation of Victims puts the figure for displacement for the same period at 248,276. (See reference here.)  While the figures are unacceptably high, it should be noted that they do represent a significant improvement in comparison to past years.

While a bilateral ceasefire is not completely out of the question, the more likely scenario, at least initially, is a series of limited, verifiable, humanitarian actions that would limit the impact of the armed conflict on the Colombian population.  Such actions might relate to ending the recruitment of minors and releasing child soldiers from guerrilla ranks, escalating de-mining efforts, ending attacks on infrastructures and bombings, protecting civilians and vulnerable populations such as Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, ending hostilities for a limited time or scope, or agreeing on rules that certain targets (near hospitals or schools, for example) will be off-limits for military assaults. (For further discussion, click here.)

In recent weeks, the FARC has also accelerated its efforts on behalf of those being held in Colombian prisons, a gesture toward “fallen comrades” that is common as peace processes reach their final phases.  In late Nov., the FARC-EP peace delegation published a letter from FARC-EP prisoners being held in the Eron Picota prison in Bogota that outlined potential peace gestures on the government’s part.  The prisoners wrote, “We understand and agree with the release of the soldiers and the General as a magnanimous gesture of good will by the FARC-EP on the path of seeking a political solution to the conflict.  But we consider that the national government must act with common sense and a bit of humanism improving our life conditions and carrying out concrete, reciprocal gestures that also show a will for peace.”  The letter alleges mistreatment, torture, and lack of adequate medical care, and calls for the release of “those men and women comrades who find themselves in the most delicate health situation, along with the elderly, and mothers, who are in no condition to continue fighting.”  (Read the FARC letter here.)  Other FARC communiqués have cited reprisals against those who protest prison conditions, and have cited the names and conditions of severely ill prisoners in need of medical treatment from Eron Picota prison. (See SOS Nuestros Prisioneros.)  On Nov. 28, the FARC-EP peace delegation highlighted a hunger strike involving some one hundred prisoners in Eron Picota prison, initiated in support of four FARC prisoners who had stitched their mouths shut to demand “urgent solutions to the humanitarian crisis” in Colombian jails. (See relevant FARC communiqué here.)  The situation appeared to have been resolved by a Dec. 1 agreement reached with prison authorities.  (See FARC communiqué here.)

Analysis of the Crisis

So what did the crisis and its resolution tell us?  The following are just a few ideas:

First, much is still not known about the particular triggers for the crisis, but on the surface, the events of the last month can be seen at least in part as a predictable consequence of an agreement between the parties to pursue a peace process in the midst of an ongoing internal armed conflict.  Such violence will most assuredly continue during the process and the navigation of November’s crisis may prepare the parties to resist allowing the violence to affect the peace process.  Alternatively, the new standing mechanism will be available to help navigate future storms.  In either case, lessons will certainly have been drawn from how this crisis was handled.

Second, the resolution of the crisis in Chocó and Arauca demonstrated the significant command-and-control that FARC leadership holds over its rank-and-file.  The FARC leadership’s agility in both protecting their troops and ensuring that commitments made at the peace table in Havana were honored in the field was notable. We have seen similar demonstrations of this capacity in the three unilateral ceasefires that have been carried out voluntarily  by the FARC (one conducted jointly with the ELN), during which time the ceasefires were largely respected and violence was significantly reduced.

Third, the crisis and its resolution have demonstrated a high degree of extant trust between the parties and with the international guarantors, Cuba and Norway, as well as the exceptional mediation capacity of those on all sides of the negotiating table. It remains to be seen whether the brief interruption will have a longer-term impact on the process, but on the surface it may well have strengthened both the relationships of those at the table and the peace process itself.

Fourth, the crisis also appears to have solidified the commitment of those at the table to keep the process moving forward.  Humberto de la Calle, on Nov. 21, affirmed that the suspension of the talks had underscored the clear vocation of the parties to remain at the table.  In a meeting in Santa Marta, De la Calle explained, “Both sides, despite dealing with a supremely complex, unanticipated, extraordinary crisis for which no one was prepared; the plan to remain at the table was really a kind of final result of what happened this week.” (See relevant article here.)

Fifth, civil society’s commitment to surround and protect the process appears to have been heightened, with a wide variety of declarations and pronouncements being issued from across the board, including all the victims who participated in the Havana talks, calling on the parties to stay at the table.

Sixth, the process has underscored the need to cultivate active public support for the peace process from both official and unofficial sources.  The office of Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro has trained a team of ten thousand “peace builders” (gestores de paz) for a door-t0-door campaign to explain the peace process and any agreements that might result.  President Santos has announced that he will replicate the idea in other cities. (See “Petro empuja la paz…”)  Other campaigns abound, like the recently set of five computer applications for peace, and will help get the word out to Colombian society more broadly.  (See Semana piece here.)

Finally, the process showed that there are divisions within the Colombian government and military over the peace process, and enemies within.  It also illustrated the skepticism on both sides over whether the peace process is, as Timochenko suggested, “no more than a simple instrument in a final war strategy.”  The reservoirs of mistrust are deep on both sides, cultivated by decades of war.  The best way to keep them at bay is to build trust through dialogue.  This basis of trust will allow the formation of agreements that, as they are implemented, will solidify the trust further.  This appears to have been the process in Havana thus far, and it was sufficient to deliver good results in Arauca and Chocó.


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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3 Responses to Back on Track: Colombian Peace Talks Resume Today in Havana

  1. Norma Inés Bernal V. says:

    Gracias Ginny, está genial este recuento del proceso y las esperanzas bien cimentadas. Celebro este 10 de diciembre con mucho amor y optimismo y lista para continuar la lucha.


  2. luzhelena07 says:

    Ginny this an excelent and well informed recount of events, good analysis.
    Thanks for putting them together for your readers and others.
    I wanto to emphasize a couple of points.
    1 as hopeful as you appear I am not sure this crisis is being enterily resolved en terms of what happens outside Havana Table. Much is to expected and elucubrated about the conditions the government negotiated to resume talks.
    Presidente Santos behaved in a very irreflexive and emotional mood when he suspended the dialogues, He played with fire.
    Indeed the process has so much support from inside as well as from outside Colombia, that it passed this acid proof.
    2 The resistance to the peace process from ample sectors of Colombian society is strong and if the process is to come to the end the rest of us want, we can not keep on treating them as the enemy. The have their arguments and they are an invisible actor at the table. They have their complaints besides their interests and sins.
    Colombian elites better be generous and advance peace gestures by promoting and supporting TRUTH AND REPARATION via telling the country how is that they got us all in this messy and long war. I see no signs, unfortunately.I feel they are waiting for the end, to enjoy other times of impunity, unfairness and unjustice.
    3 In relation to the so called de-escalation of the war, I would like very much to hear about a committment from FARC to dismantle its code of morals imposed on women and young people, second a committment to install a procedure to get an agreement with ¨pueblos originales ¨, this is the indian communities that are in resistance to their tactics of war. It wil also be nice to hear that no single land mine will be planted and that communities will be advised about the danger surrounding them, and of course committ to ” juego limpio ” and not attack medical misión and schoolls.In essence stop the war against civil population.
    Of course a Christmas and New Year truce from all sides. We deserve it.


  3. daniel gutierrez says:

    thanks Ginny for your,as always, thoughtful and well-considered comments. A succesful outcome to the talks in Havana requires not only the will and perseverance to continue no matter the obstacles, but it also needs a hard head. As far as a bilateral ceasefire is concerned, the reality is that if there had been a ceasefire in place from the beginning, we would not still have a dialogue to talk about. Fuelled by Uribe’s incessant propaganda, the public are sceptical enough as it is. Imagine a ceasefire. The Farc would have had complete immunity to carry on with all their many criminal activities, extortion[ and the threat of death if you refuse to pay] , illegal mining, drug trafficking etc, while the Armed Forces could do nothing. I believe the Farc are serious about a peace deal, for the simple reason that they know the war is going nowhere and they are slowly getting weaker, but with a ceasefire, they really would have had no incentive to ‘get a move on’ and the talks are agonizingly slow as it is. Their past – with Pastrana – goes before them. Uribe and sidekick Zuluaga would have won the election and the war would continue for years to come.

    Having said that, now we seem to be approaching the final phase, there could be scope for a significant reduction of military action on both sides, but the Farc have to accept that they cannot just continue all their non-military activities as normal. Compromise is called for, Ibelieve there is a will on both sides for this


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