Since the time of La Violencia, negotiations between guerrilla groups (especially the FARC) and the government have mostly been ineffective, aside from a few successes in the early 1990s. As a result, it became fashionable for both sides to claim, “We have tried negotiations, but they haven’t worked for over half a century,” to justify continuing the war. The truth is that though both entities tried to negotiate, the process never really took place in good faith. This makes it difficult for negotiations to be effective. It is time for both the Santos administration and the FARC and ELN to demonstrate their sincerity through action.
In the early 1950s, when General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla was in power, he granted amnesty to both paramilitary death squads and guerrillas, and demobilization followed. However, the guerrillas never fully disarmed, and the general used violence to subdue the opposition that rose against his scrapping of agrarian reforms. Bombings, selective assassinations, and drastic displacement of the rural population resulted, and are considered by Colombian violentologists as the second phase of La Violencia. Negotiations were insincere on both sides.
In the 1980s, President Belisario Betancur successfully agreed a ceasefire with the FARC. This allowed the creation of a legitimate political party, Union Patriotica (U.P.), to represent the concerns of the FARC, and those the guerrillas represented, on the political stage. However, the FARC never disarmed and continued “all forms of struggle.” Conversely, the government did not protect the U.P. as promised, and, at times, even tolerated and collaborated with armed groups that targeted U.P. members and sympathizers for assassination. The result was the political genocide (2,000 to 5,000 dead) of the U.P. The party no longer exists. Negotiations were insincere on both sides.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Colombian administration and the FARC attempted further negotiations. The government even demilitarized a section of Colombian territory for the FARC. However, the FARC did not disarm and used this opportunity to recruit, train, extort, kidnap, and seize a bigger role in the drug trade. Simultaneously, the government began to modernize its army, legitimized U.S. intervention under the veil of a “drug war” whose main purpose was really to subdue the leftist insurgency, while government-allied paramilitaries continued their pillaging and slaughter over millions of hectares of land and hundreds of thousands of lives. Negotiations were insincere on both sides.
In 2002, the people elected Alvaro Uribe to the country’s highest office on the platform that negotiations had failed, and it was time for an iron fist to militarily defeat the guerrillas once and for all. The closest thing to negotiations during this eight-year period was talks of an exchange of hostages for jailed guerrillas.
To the surprise of many, President Juan Manuel Santos has demonstrated a willingness to negotiate and resolve conflicts through discourse—far more so than his predecessor. We can look at the Andean diplomatic crisis which flared up in March 2008, and worsened in August 2009, as an example. Uribe bequeathed to President Santos one of Colombia’s worst neighborly relations since the secession of Venezuela and Ecuador some 180 years ago, or of Panama in 1903, or the territorial war against Peru in the early 1930s. In less than two months in office, President Santos silenced battle drums and subdued fires of resentment, which led to a restoration of diplomatic and trade ties that seem promising for all parties involved. This is reason for optimism.
In late July, FARC leader Alfonso Cano called for talks with the new government. Santos also opened the door to negotiations. However, both sides gave different preconditions for such a step. Though I would not go as far as Vice President Angelino Garzon, who claimed on September 15 that there is no longer “reason for guerrilla groups to exist in Colombia,” I will say that government preconditions for talks are reasonable: “set free all the kidnapped people without conditions, cease the practices of kidnapping, terrorism, and land mines.”
If Alfonso Cano truly believes, as he claimed in February, that 70% of Colombians are in favor of a political solution to the armed conflict, then it is reasonable to accept a similar figure, if not a larger one, would support the government’s preconditions for peace talks. The only one being unreasonable is Alfonso Cano.
That is, of course, if the government is sincere and acting in good faith. History has demonstrated that it often has not during peace talks. Nevertheless, we must judge President Santos on his actions, not on the actions of previous parties. President Santos has already demonstrated his will to resolve the situations with Ecuador and Venezuela, so we know he can settle disputes peacefully.
However, I would say that if the FARC does abide by government preconditions for dialogue, the government must not use this as an opportunity to ambush the guerrillas or civilians, nor should it tolerate or support other illegally armed groups doing so. For peace talks to be successful, sincere, and in good faith, this does not seem absurd.
Let’s begin by abandoning the discourse of trying to figure out who threw the first stone during the past 60-plus years, to justify the violence used by one party against another. Both parties have done horrendous things and are guilty of extreme human rights violations and crimes against humanity. I see this as an opportune time for a political solution to the armed conflict. Though I am skeptical about how much each party is willing to concede during negotiations—if preconditions are met and they sit down for a chat—I hope my skepticism is proven ill-founded.
Julián Esteban Torres López is an editor, writer, researcher, and educator with nearly two decades’ experience working with publications, historical societies, and cultural and research institutions, and has held leadership positions in the academe, the arts, journals, the business sector, and history museums. You can follow him on Twitter.