Following the release of General Ruben Dario Alzate who had been held by the FARC for two weeks, government and rebel negotiators began negotiating how to “de-escalate” the conflict. The FARC want a bilateral ceasefire, but the government is cautious.
When the talks began in November 2012, the parties had failed to agree on a bilateral ceasefire for the duration of the talks.
Such bilateral ceasefire would be controversial in Colombia as the guerrillas have long been accused of abusing the 1999-2002 peace talks to reorganize their military machine.
However, the legitimacy of the talks has been taking serious hits over war-related killings of civilians by guerrillas and the FARC’s apparent ability to deal embarrassing military blows to the military and the already unpopular administration of President Juan Manuel Santos.
When talks began, the president said that what happened in the battlefield would not affect what happened in the talks, but reality has forced Santos to break that promise.
Unilateral vs. bilateral
The conservative opposition led by former President Alvaro Uribe has been highly critical over the conditions in which the talks have been taken place and has used the FARC’s military successes to discredit the Santos administration. Uribe prefers to see the FARC forced to accept a unilateral ceasefire.
However, the FARC have consistently called for a bilateral ceasefire, claiming it wouldn’t carry out unpopular acts of war if there was no war. The guerrillas have pushed this demand with every recent military success.
“When guerrilla fighters are killed, the government gets euphoric. In turn, soldiers die and we call for a bilateral ceasefire,” the FARC said after an attack on a police patrol that killed seven officials.
The military and the guerrillas had been negotiating a ceasefire parallel to victims for weeks before the suspension, while according to the initial agenda this point would not be discussed until after agreement on how to respond to the millions of victims of the conflict.
Suspension ‘destroyed bridge of trust’
Santos’ recent suspension of the talks following Alzate’s historic capture infuriated the FARC and increased the rebels’ call for a bilateral end of hostilities. While the group’s negotiators said that under no condition they would leave the talks, the FARC’s supreme leader, “Timochenko,” warned the government that a second suspension would not be resumed as easily.
“The president always bragged with the Israeli slogan of talking as if there were no war and making war as if there were no dialogues … He always claimed that the ground rules were that nothing that happens in the battlefields would affect the course of the talks. He even imposed that the talks in Havana would go uninterrupted,” said Timochenko last week, adding that in the event of a suspension “things can not be resumed like this again.”
On Monday, as negotiators returned to Cuba where talks are held, the FARC told government negotiator Humberto de la Calle that those “who imposed the suspension of the talks cannot return with the intention of also imposing the date of resumption, as if nothing had happened.”
“The rules that lead the march of the process will have to be re-designed, as the government broke them, destroying the bridge of trust we had built as well. From our side we are fully prepared to act accordingly, including the ability to permanently shield the talks, agreeing an Armistice,” the rebel leadership said in a press statement.
Santos fears failure
“I don’t want to go into history as another ingenuous president who constructed a peace process that fails in the end, I hope not but it can fail. And this allows the guerrillas to end up stronger and the State weakened. I can not accept this,” said Santos days after the FARC captured the highest-ranked military official in its 50-year history.
However, things have changed after Santos made that statement rejecting a ceasefire on November 21.
The peace talks, clearly in crisis, are guaranteed by Norway and Cuba who took the lead in securing the swift return to freedom of Alzate and are mediating in the negotiations on “how” to continue peace talks while securing a de-escalation of the conflict.
During the intervention of the guarantors of the talks, Santos has remained quiet about maintaining the military offensive.
The government’s chief negotiator said Monday that he was willing to conduct a “complete, in-depth evaluation” of the talks “with the will to decide on acts of peace” and “the will to seek swift answers to what we have called the de-escalation of the conflict.”
While the government has continued to refuse to openly consider the first bilateral ceasefire in 12 years, other means to achieve a “de-escalation of the conflict” seem limited.