Although Colombian government and rebel negotiators are expressing cautious optimism over the progress of talks, the peace process is hampered by continuing violence.
Negotiations between officials and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army or FARC-EP have been under way in the Cuban capital in Havana since a landmark agreement was signed in August 2012. The very fact that both sides are prepared to meet and have agreed an agenda is a major achievement, given that the FARC-EP insurgency has been going on since the 1960s. (See Is Colombia Ready for Peace?)
Crucially, however, neither side is willing to call a permanent halt to the fighting on the ground at the moment.
In a statement issued in February 2012 as preliminary talks began, the guerrillas pledged to end the practice of kidnap for ransom which they had pursued since 1982. At the same time, they said they would continue to hold any soldiers and police they captured in combat.
FARC-EP announced a unilateral ceasefire in November, but that expired in January and was not renewed. Soon afterwards, the guerrillas mounted a number of attacks and captured two police officers and a soldier. More seizures followed. This caused consternation among Colombians, most of whom had forgotten that the group reserved the right to take “prisoners-of-war”.
The Colombian government, meanwhile, is adamant that military operations will continue until a peace deal is reached, and has rejected FARC-EP’s proposal for a bilateral ceasefire, suspecting that the guerrillas would just use the breathing-space to regroup and rearm.
The anti-kidnapping organisation País Libre (“Free Country”) believes that FARC-EP is still holding between 600 and 700 abducted individuals.
FARC-EP denies this. Journalist Salud Hernández, a member of País Libre’s board, has also accused the government of complicity by refusing to acknowledge that the rebels still hold these people.
At the same time, it is possible that not all these individuals can be blamed on FARC-EP. Some may have been kidnapped by criminal groups pretending to be part of the insurgency; others may just be among the long list of missing persons whose fate is unclear.
It is extremely difficult to pursue negotiations while conflict persists, for a variety of reasons, one being the public demand for a military response to rebel attacks. The pace of negotiations is never going to be in sync with military activities on the ground. The fighting is always liable to undermine mutual trust between the negotiating teams, and each of them may find it hard to communicate with its respective armed forces.
Without violence going on in the background, both sides would find it a lot easier to move towards agreement with cool heads.
Both government and rebels should remind themselves that they have never got as far in peace talks as they have now down. For either side, walking out of negotiations would come at a high price.
The government would inevitably have to adopt a more aggressive military approach, something that would have knock-on effects for elections scheduled for 2014 and 2015.
For FARC-EP, abandoning the peace process would mean losing the ability to be heard at international level, and would also undercut popular support for it in Colombia.
Rodrigo Sandoval Araujo is a Colombian blogger whose background is in studied communications and political science. (Blog: El bayabuyiba)
This story was first published on IWPR’s website.