BOGOTÁ, Colombia – The planned March 23rd signing of the peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was rushed, both sides confirmed, and the signing has now been postponed but the talks are not in jeopardy and are continuing.
The peace talks in question between the FARC, Latin America’s oldest insurgency group, and the Colombian government, started in October of 2012 initially in Oslo, Norway and then continued in Havana, Cuba with the hopes of ending a conflict that has lasted over half a century.
In reaction to a ultraviolent crackdown on peasant organizations, the FARC militarized in 1964. As the primary guerrilla force, the FARC rebels have been engaged in war with the Colombian government since then, a war that has claimed more than 220,000 lives and displaced several million more.
So far, an agreement on land reform has been achieved during the peace talks, along with the group’s future political participation and the topic of the illicit drug trade. The last point that was agreed upon, which was transitional justice, carried with it the sub-point of suspect and victim recognition and reparation, the most sensitive subject given that it concerned all those affected by the conflict. As such, it was also the longest point as negotiations about the victims lasted 18 months.
In late September of 2015, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC’s top leader, Timoleón Jiménez “Timochenko” (whose real name is Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri) announced in Havana that a definitive peace agreement should be signed between the long-warring factions on March 23 of 2016, six months from the date the two men met and came to the agreement in the Cuban capital.
This meant that the two sides had just 180 days to agree upon how the final points of the peace talks (end of the conflict, surrender of weapons and demobilization) would be defined.
According to a news agency linked to the FARC, the latest bump in the road came earlier this month when the government negotiators decided to change the wording in parts of the agreement text. This, in turn, caused the FARC to ask for another discussion on the topics so that the text can be re-worked in a way that will suit both parties. The biggest cause of the delay, however, was the discussion point of transitional justice because it took several months longer than expected to finish.
The missing of the deadline does not jeopardize the process, but it does fuel the skepticism of those in Colombia who do not support the peace process and never have.
Álvaro Uribe, the two-term leader (2002-2010) that preceded Santos when the latter assumed the presidency, has been the most outspoken opponent of the peace talks. By using baseless evidence, hearsay and his own theories, he has sought to undermine the talks and has continued with the same rhetoric since returning to politics as a Senator with his right-wing Democratic Center party in July of 2014.
Prior to forming the Democratic Center in 2013, Uribe belonged to the Social Party of National Unity (La U), a party founded in 2005 by a group of right-leaning dissidents (led by Uribe) of the centrist Colombian Liberal Party and to which Santos still belongs. Santos, Uribe’s understudy and Defense Minister, then succeeded Uribe as President but after a clash over ideology, Uribe has repeatedly critiqued Santos and formed the said Democratic Center which has become the biggest opposition party in the Senate.
Thus, Uribe, a man with links to illegal right-wing paramilitary groups and sectors of the Armed Forces, and his party wield a great deal of public influence and have made their feelings on the process known, even comparing the Islamic State to the FARC and saying that there is no difference between what the former did in Paris and Brussels and what the FARC did in Colombia.
Despite Uribe’s virulent and often petty opposition to the peace talks, the de-escalation of the conflict has only brought positive developments in the conflict. In a report released earlier this year, the Resource Center for Conflict Analysis (CERAC) explained that in the July 20-to-December 20 period, the violence levels fell to their lowest point ever observed since the beginning of the conflict and earlier this week, Ombudsman of the Defense Ministry confirmed that the FARC are still complying with their ceasefire.
In spite of the progress made, the six-month period drawn up by the two sides seemed rushed given the complexity of the issues yet to be resolved. Indeed, a poll taken at the end of February showed that a vast majority of Colombians (nearly 80 percent) thought that the final peace agreement would not be signed on the agreed-upon date.
On Wednesday in Havana, the two negotiating sides took measures to assure the public that despite the hiccup concerning the deadline, the talks will continue.
In a sign of that goodwill, lead government negotiators Humberto de la Calle and Sergio Jaramillo and their FARC counterparts Timoleón Jiménez “Timochenko” and “Iván Márquez” sat side-by-side in Havana’s Estadio Latinoamericano to watch the Tampa Bay Rays of Major League Baseball play a friendly game against the Cuban National Team. US President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro sat two rows down.
After the game, US Secretary of State (Foreign Minister) John Kerry held a meeting with Colombian government officials and the FARC negotiators, which was the first time in history that a US official met with the rebels; “Timochenko” called the meeting “unprecedented and previously unthinkable.”
The development is significant given that the US has been integral to the Colombian government’s battle with the guerrillas. ‘Plan Colombia’ is the name of the controversial US operation that finances, promotes and secures intensive military action against the FARC, the ELN (a much smaller rebel group) and Colombian drug cartels. Under previous US administrations, support for negotiating with the FARC, which remains on Washington’s list of terrorist organizations, would have been, as “Timochenko” said, “unthinkable.”
The March 23 deadline was the first concrete date set during years of negotiations. Now that it was missed, the sides have yet to announce the next deadline but the FARC-linked media have floated the possibility of a late May or June signing.
A positive aspect of presenting a deadline, however, is the factor of urgency; there was technically more progress made during the six-month period from when the deadline was set than in any other six-month period. In the last three weeks specifically, more hours were spent negotiating than in any other three week period.
Regardless of when the agreement is signed, the process will have the support of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations (which is slated to monitor an eventual bilateral ceasefire) and other organizations.