By Robert Works
Signaling an unprecedented change in course and strategy, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia —FARC) announced this week that the guerrilla body would no longer use kidnapping as a tool to achieve its revolutionary objectives against Colombian authorities. Kidnappings have long served as an important financial source for the insurgent group that first took up arms against the government in 1964, but the recent decision by the FARC leadership indicates the possibility of a return to negotiations with the government of Manuel Santos.
This article will briefly explore the previous attempts at negotiating a political settlement between the FARC and the Colombian government by tracing the peace processes initiated during various Colombian presidencies including: Belisario Betancur (1982-1986), Virgilio Barco (1986-1990), Cesar Gaviria (1990-1994), as well as Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002). The source material regarding these early and later attempted political negotiations relies heavily on the research and lectures of Professor Carlo Nasi at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. After briefly examining the previous peace processes, the article will conclude by suggesting that President Santos has been presented with a tremendous opportunity and his subsequent actions may be critical in bringing an end to this devastating and protracted conflict.
In 1982, President Ingrid Betancur came to power in Colombia with a promise to end the armed conflict. In a region characterized by leftist revolutions and rightist attempts to prevent such revolutions, and in a world shaped by the retreating eddies of Cold War politics, Betancur courageously attempted to fight against those opposing systemic features to bring peace to Colombia. He successfully negotiated a cease-fire with the FARC, and by 1986 the guerrilla body had established the Unión Patriótica (Patriotic Union—UP) to politically integrate the in the nation’s political process and participate in the 1986 elections. However, the FARC maintained its armed nature even while creating a new political party. Shortly after is creation of the UP, armed paramilitary groups were killing thousands of the UP’s political participants, and the Colombian military failed to support Betancur’s efforts.
Betancur’s lofty intentions to achieve a negotiated peace quickly collapsed, but his successor maintained the posture of negotiation. In 1986, Virgilio Barco assumed the presidency in Colombia, and by 1988, he had inherited a very different world than the one of his predecessor. The international system experienced considerable change with the end, or at least the reduction of Cold War politics. He focused his attention on other leftist groups, like the M-19, and his successor continued his favorable policies. Barco and Gaviria defined the Colombian government’s role in the peace process as one of assuming political responsibility—a key failure of Betancur—by creating peace commissions, and peace envoys, and most importantly by means of the integration of the Colombian military into the negotiation process. Their policies inevitably resulted in the dismantling and political reconciliation of a key leftist group, the M-19, and their successes can be seen today as evidenced by the rise of Gustavo Petro in Bogotá.
In 1998, Andrés Pastrana appeared to be the best prepared candidate to negotiate with the FARC, but once he assumed the presidency, he was met with considerable opposition to negotiation by the Colombian military. He did reach some level of success initially with the FARC, through negotiating a complicated 47-point agreement. Even still, the Colombian military largely opposed any measures to grant revitalized demilitarization zones, a tenant of the FARC’s requests, which provided considerable limitation to the Pastrana regime. Pastrana gave up on efforts of negotiating with the FARC after a series of violent clashes between the government and the insurgent group.
The next leader of the FARC had a pivotal decision to make: to continue a war against the state that would only continue to expose his supporters to dangers, or to reconcile and move forward on a true path that yields legitimacy to a vilified ‘advocate’. At the time it seemed that the next leader of the FARC could decide to the Colombian political establishment by reaching out to President Santos and offering him the chance for political reconciliation.
Although it’s still too early to determine with total certainty, it looks like the FARC has done just that. President Santos has long maintained that any negotiation will depend heavily on the renunciation of kidnapping by the FARC, and I doubt he expected that renunciation to come. However, publicly, the FARC has disavowed such actions, and now Santos must uphold his part of the bargain. He remains in a precarious position, and he must not gamble his government’s prestige completely on a negotiated agreement, like so many of his predecessors did. Nonetheless, he has an opportunity to achieve something that at best only his predecessors only envisioned.
The world today is much different than it was during the previous negotiations. The Cold War has ended, the United States has passed through a period of dominance to one of recent decline, and the FARC, decimated by devastating casualties in its senior ranks, no longer has the capabilities to wage a successful war against the Colombian government.
President Santos has achieved a major concession from the FARC, and he knows that the real victory of achieving a peaceful, stable and more democratic Colombia remains gripped by an internal war that is incapable of achieving a true, lasting security by means of the status quo.
Santos needs to remember the successes and failures of his predecessors and to look to them as a guide to initiate a new round of negotiations with the FARC. However, he must remain guarded and be careful not to confer too much legitimacy on a severely weakened and battered guerrilla insurgency. But, the FARC made the first move, and Santos needs to be wise enough to respond.
It’s time that the FARC leadership and President Santos seize the present opportunity to make history and to achieve long-lasting peace.
Robert Works is a COHA Research Fellow and Fulbright Scholar