Colombia: Progress Meets Politics


Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos gives a speech during a campaign rally for the presidential elections in Soacha, near Bogota May 12, 2014. PHOTO: Reuters

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos gives a speech during a campaign rally for the presidential elections in Soacha, near Bogota May 12, 2014. PHOTO: Reuters

Rarely has there been more progress in a single day toward settling a five-decades-old conflict than on 16 May. In the early morning hours, Colombia’s two guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN), announced an “electoral” ceasefire to last from 20 to 28 May. This was followed in the afternoon by the confirmation that Havana-based peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC resulted in a preliminary agreement to “solve the problem of illegal drugs”. Coming just before the sharply contested presidential vote on 25 May, these two developments could have a significant short-term political impact and, one hopes, long-term humanitarian benefits.

Guerrillas and democracy

The announcement of a joint unilateral electoral ceasefire between 20 and 28 May came as a surprise. Since talks in Havana between FARC and the government started in late 2012, civil-society groups and parts of the international community have repeatedly urged the parties to agree on a ceasefire so humanitarian relief could reach communities still exposed to hostilities. These calls included, most recently, a letter signed by 245 legislators from the U.S., the UK and Ireland. Both FARC and the ELN had expressed willingness to engage in a ceasefire, and FARC previously had declared unilateral suspensions of hostilities during the 2012 and 2013 Christmas seasons. But still, there was not much to suggest that FARC and the ELN would suspend operations against military targets and, significantly, the country’s economic infrastructure for this electoral period.

Their decision will help stabilise the negotiating process, which again came under significant pressure after FARC, on 15 May, allegedly used two minors to carry out an attack on police forces in Tumaco (Nariño Department).But the ceasefire is also significant for another reason. Electoral periods have often coincided with peaks of violence as guerrilla groups and other illegal armed actors have attempted to impose outcomes favourable to them or to sabotage the process altogether. And as FARC and the ELN point out in their announcement, they remain highly sceptical of Colombia’s electoral system. The temporary suspension of violence thus not only signals their willingness to listen more closely to demands from civil society. The ceasefire, coming after last year’s agreement between FARC and the government to reform the electoral system and open up politics to new actors, is also an important implicit recognition and affirmation of one of the central aims underlying the current peace effort: to separate violence from politics.

The ELN and the peace process

The adherence of the ELN to the ceasefire is the other significant angle to the announcement. Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group has long been trying to engage in fresh talks with the government. Efforts to seek an agreement over agenda and methodology have intensified since the Havana talks with FARC were launched, but until now to no avail. The electoral ceasefire is the clearest signal yet that the ELN, traditionally wary of unilateral gestures, is committed to new talks, not just in rhetoric but in practice. Successful implementation of the ceasefire would weaken the case of sceptics, who have often argued that the ELN’s decentralised structure and its relatively weak vertical control would make negotiations with it more difficult, if not outright impossible. It would also give new impetus to setting up talks with the ELN, without which the government’s declared goal – to end the conflict for good – will remain elusive.

Prospects for such a definitive and inclusive political endgame are also strengthened by the ceasefire agreement in that it provides more evidence that FARC and the ELN have made substantial headway in transforming their historically often distant, and at times violent, relations. This first joint ceasefire since 1984 suggests that both movements have not just improved military cooperation but also increasingly share a project of seeking peace.

The importance of the drug accord

As on previous occasions, the government and FARC were relatively short on details concerning their agreement regarding the problem of illegal drugs. Several contentious points remain open, pending future revision under the principle that “nothing is agreed on until everything is agreed on”. However, the 11-page joint statement does lay out a raft of initiatives to combat the trade in illicit drugs, including a new National Comprehensive Illicit Crop Substitution Programme; creation of a national programme on drug consumption with a human-rights and public-health focus; intensification of the fight against corruption and organised crime, and a strategy to control chemical precursors. Both sides also agreed on implementing a programme to remove land mines, in which FARC will assume responsibilities to provide information on their location.

Taken together, these points imply a significant shift in the overall direction of Colombia’s counter-drug policy. This is perhaps most visible in the case of crop substitution. The new programme will proceed on the basis of agreements with cultivating communities and government guarantees for sustainable livelihoods. Only when cultivators fail to carry out the programme, or when no consensus with communities can be reached, will measures to forcefully remove illegal crops – currently the backbone of counter-drug policy – be considered. In such a case, the agreement prioritises manual eradication over the highly controversial aerial fumigation; the latter is not explicitly mentioned in the joint communication, but the government remains committed to it as a last-resort measure, as chief negotiator Humberto de la Calle explained. These measures are in line with the bottom-up approach of the Havana talks. They also appear largely in sync with the increasing domestic and international questioning of traditional eradication- and interdiction-focused counter-drug policies.

But for all the enthusiasm the agreement has justifiably triggered, a “Colombia without coca” (as President Santos framed it) or without drug trafficking is not around the corner. Implementation will be complex and take years, as is clear from the mixed success in fighting corruption or money laundering, commitments that Colombia has already assumed. Implementation of the drugs agreement might also put neighbouring states under strain, requiring improved international cooperation to prevent undesired cross-border effects.

Can FARC deliver on drugs promises?

In a key passage of the joint communication, FARC pledges to end “every relation” with the phenomenon of illegal drugs that “might have arisen as a function of the rebellion”. Despite the lack of details on those relations, this goes beyond FARC’s standing position regarding its involvement in the illegal drug economy: previously, the guerrillas argued their role has been limited to protecting communities as well as taxing the cultivation and sale of coca. But FARC’s mea culpa does not imply the guerrillas would have accepted widespread political claims that they have, in practice, morphed into yet another drug-cartel. In fact, the communication clearly separates the guerrillas from ordinary drug-traffickers by explicitly linking FARC’s drug-related activities to their insurgency.

Yet FARC are not off the hook. As the agreement says, they are now under pressure to “effectively contribute” through “practical actions” to the solution of the illegal-drugs problem. They also pledge to contribute to the “clarification” of the relationship between conflict and drugs.

The guerrilla leadership has every incentive to make the agreement work, even against possible resistance in parts of the organisation with links to drug trafficking. A failure to deliver on these commitments would not just undermine the narrative of a purely instrumental relationship to the drugs economy, with enormous political costs for a group that already suffers from a severe credibility problem. It would also jeopardise FARC’s local political future. The agreement resonates with many demands that coca-growing communities have made in recent years. This suggests that, even though the accord does not give FARC a formal role in implementing crop substitution (as the guerrillas had originally demanded), a successful programme will be critically important for mending ties with communities in coca-growing regions, home to FARC’s largest social base.

Timing is key

The drugs agreement reflects negotiations lasting some six months, about the same time it took the parties to hammer out deals on previous agenda points (rural development and political participation). This, and the range of initiatives proposed, gives credence to government claims that the agreement is not merely an instrument to secure president Santos’ re-election, as critics have asserted.

But with fewer than ten days before the first round of presidential elections, the drugs agreement and the ceasefire are bound to have political impact. The last round of polls saw President Santos tied with or falling behind Óscar Iván Zuluaga, a critic of the peace talks. But the combined impact of both events could work in favour of Santos by bringing peace back to the centre of public debate and refocusing an electoral campaign that has been notorious for its mudslinging. With no further polling allowed, it will only become clear on Election Day whether these gambles by FARC, the ELN and the government have paid off.


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