“Alfonso Cano,” supreme FARC commander, reappeared last week in a video broadcast by Al-Jazeera. The video is significant for a number of reasons. First, it comes in the wake of rumors that the military operations against Cano could soon lead to his capture. The military has reportedly destroyed several of Cano’s “security rings,” killing some prominent guerrillas in charge of his safety. Second, after rambling against the Uribe administration, Cano sends a message to the new government. “Let’s talk,” he says, underscoring that he is willing to negotiate with the Santos administration.
One is left wondering what Cano’s true intentions are. Perhaps he has realized that now, with four more years of “democratic security” about to begin, the FARC has no better option than to strike a deal with the state. Most people would prefer giving up and negotiating with the government (a la M-19) to spending many more days fighting a war that they can’t win. When one’s alternatives are death, jail, or endless fighting on the one hand, and a political solution on the other, the answer seems pretty clear.
But FARC fighters, and even more so their commanders, are not like most people. The group has shown mind-boggling resilience, surviving eleven presidents, and even facing an enemy that is almost a hundred times its size the FARC still manages to pose a security threat in many parts of Colombia. Finding refuge in Colombia’s difficult geography and under the protective wing of some wannabe-dictators, the group is able to avoid annihilation. Moreover, Cano, like others in the FARC’s leadership, presents himself as profoundly convinced of communist ideology (his actions often speak otherwise, however). People so certain of their cause are rarely willing to concede and bargain, and this makes negotiations difficult. After all, perhaps FARC leaders believe that they can afford to wait in the dark for the right moment to strike again.
What to make of Cano’s statement? How should the government respond to it? Part of the strategy of “democratic security” is to put enough pressure on insurgencies to force them to demobilize and negotiate. Total destruction of the FARC and other groups by military means has always been a second-best solution, being costlier and harder to achieve. The Uribe administration has shown willingness to negotiate with FARC, but not on the rebels’ terms. Does the video represent proof that FARC is close to reaching its breaking point? It has lost men, money, weaponry and valuable international contacts in the past eight years. If one is to believe the government’s numbers, there are 12,000 fewer FARC members today than in 2002 – a 60% reduction in its manpower. Due to the intense military activity against them, top FARC commanders reportedly now work almost independently from one another. This means that, often, the guerrilla does not operate as one group, but as a fractured, uncoordinated mass. Furthermore, they have lost most of the hostages they held as political bargain chips.
It is impossible for me to answer with accuracy all the questions that I have posed above. My best guess, however, is that the video is nothing but a diversion, another ruse by FARC which fits well with the current crisis with Venezuela. It is no coincidence that Cano talks about negotiations at a time when the Chavez administration is proposing a “peace plan” for Colombia. As the Colombian government (both the outgoing and the new one) probably won’t pay attention to Cano’s words, it will be easier for the Venezuelan regime to present Colombia as a peace-hating nation. Another alternative explanation is that Cano is trying to buy time now that the military is getting closer to his capture. As usual, he will present himself as the dove he is not, arguing that he is on the side of rational, mutual understanding, when in fact he is nothing but a “thug,” as President Uribe said last week.
It would be unwise to trust Cano and his message today. In the past, FARC commanders have been ready to stab the nation in the back while they spoke words of peace. However, it would be equally unwise to believe that all doors to a negotiated solution must remain closed forever. After all, the aim of the “democratic security” policy is to coerce terrorists into accepting an end to the conflict. So when the time comes, and FARC wants to surrender and negotiate unconditionally, the government must listen. But that time is not now. Public opinion is against a negotiated solution, and Cano’s words sound half-hearted, at best. He talks about changing Colombia’s economic model (to communism, one presumes), and repealing the military base deal with the U.S., but there is no mention of a ceasefire, and no indication of what the FARC are willing to give up. It should be noted, though, that Cano did not bring up the demilitarization of municipalities as a condition for negotiation, a must for FARC in the past. It seems that the group is leaving behind some of its past pretentiousness.
Cano’s invitation for dialogue is a step in the right direction, but the government must ignore it for now. Continued military operations against these terrorists will strengthen their willingness to negotiate, so it won’t hurt to keep the pressure on them. When the time comes, and more terrorist commanders are captured or killed, when more rank and file guerrillas demobilize, when more hostages are freed, the FARC’s resilience will start to diminish. Then, wholeheartedly, they will want to negotiate and end their irrationality. Mr. Santos must be ready to grasp that opportunity when the moment comes.