The FARC’s new ceasefire

On Wednesday the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia declared a second unilateral ceasefire during the current round of negotiations with the Santos administration.  According to the insurgency’s chief negotiator, Ivan Marquez, it was stated that ‘we announce our willingness to to order a unilateral ceasefire from July 20, for a month…through this, we’re looking to create favourable conditions with our counterpart to advance a definitive and bilateral ceasefire‘.

The timing of this decision comes after two announcements at this stage of the process- a declaration by Santos that the government will intensify an offensive military strategy against the FARC, and pressure from ‘guarantor’ countries Norway and Cuba, and ‘escort’ countries Venezuela and Chile to ‘strictly restrict any actions that cause victims or suffering in Colombia, and to step up the implementation of confidence-building measures‘. Moreover, according to Reuters, the government’s chief negotiator Humberto de la Calle stated that ‘the peace process is at its worst moment since we began talks…I want to tell the FARC in all seriousness, this could end.  Some day, it’s probable that they won’t find us around the table in Havana‘.  He went further to suggest that the government would be willing to consider a bilateral ceasefire before a final peace deal is signed, if the insurgency accepts judicial responsibility for the violence it has perpetrated and only if it abstains from extortion and the drug industry.

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Humberto de la Calle, Chief Negotiator for the Colombian government in talks with the FARC. Photo courtesy of ICP Colombia, Flickr

There is no doubt that negotiations under the Santos administration have produced the most progress of any effort to end violence with the FARC since the first attempt by the Betancur administration in 1982, despite their decreasing popularity amongst the Colombian population. Whilst this is the case, it is really quite unprecedented that the peace process has become incredibly strained in the past few months, given that agreements have been made on most of the negotiation agenda items. The FARC’s declaration of a month-long unilateral ceasefire can be viewed through both an optimistic and cautious lens, as strategic intentions become increasingly blurred given recent insurgent activity against police, military and infrastructure.  There is no doubt that the FARC’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire is an attempt to draw the Colombian government into a bilateral ceasefire.  From an optimistic standpoint, this could be seen as a demonstration of commitment by the FARC to continue to current round of negotiations, and to temporarily cease its military activities.  Given the nature of such attacks over the past weeks, this can be seen as a commitment to the de-escalation of violence.  From a cautious stance, the FARC has been accused of utilising ceasefires as a guise to recuperate and rearm.  Given vows by the Colombian government to increase an offensive against the insurgency, combined by de la Calle’s stance that it is very possible the government will walk away from negotiations, there is viability in a cautious approach to the intention behind the current ceasefire.  Lessons learned from the Pastrana administration granting the insurgency a ‘demilitarised zone’ during its round of negotiations presents a somewhat painful picture, where it became evident that the movement was utilising the space for building up military capacity and training.

Recently, I have been conducting in depth research into the peace process attempts under the Pastrana and Uribe administrations, engaging with the specifics of the negotiations themselves, factors that helped and hindered the processes, and engaging with an array of primary material that I was able to access through archives.  Whilst the Uribe negotiation attempt with the FARC during his first term (2002-2006) never really eventuated, what is clear is that during these two administrations, the FARC really had no need to arrive at a political solution to the conflict.  During the Pastrana administration, the FARC was at its strongest in terms of territorial control, military capacity and capability, and financing coming in through the coca boom.  Paramilitaries were mobilised and exacerbating violence, creating a vicious cycle during negotiations in that the FARC refused to demobilise or cease military activity if the paramilitary groups were not addressed.  Peace attempts during the Pastrana administration also collapsed as a result of other factors, however never progressed further than minor procedural agreements with the insurgency.  In terms of FARC demobilisation, it would have been unlikely that the peace process resulted in success unless significant concession were made due to the insurgency’s strength. The FARC’s strength impacted on Uribe’s attempts to negotiations in that they refused to agree to a ceasefire as a condition of entering into negotiations.  Whilst Uribe demonstrated ‘success’ in the demobilisation of paramilitaries (including the AUC), and made minor progress initially with the ELN, there was no need for the FARC to negotiate under such conditions.  It wasn’t until Uribe’s second term (2006-2010) where military offensives against the insurgency resulted it capacity degradation and deaths of key leaders that the FARC began to show signs of weakening.  A key indicator of this was the fact that around 2008, the FARC returned to a strategy of ‘hit-and-run’ tactics throughout the rural population, avoiding full blown confrontations with the military in small cities.

Despite the current turbulence, these strains can perhaps shed light on why this current round of negotiation has been comparatively effective.  The insurgency is experiencing dwindling numbers, though currently mobilised at between 8000-10000 combatants.  The threat of a military offensive would not be a positive outcome for the insurgency in this late stage of the peace process, and I would argue that this has shaped the FARC’s decision to declare a second temporary ceasefire. I’m not convinced this is an attempt to rearm, though the possibility is there. Should the FARC desire a political settlement, I believe that this round of negotiations would have the highest success in achieving such an objective- particularly given the consensus on key agenda issues. I also believe that the FARC knows this, and despite recent aggression throughout the past weeks has declared this unilateral ceasefire to keep negotiations on track in an attempt to hold on to a political outcome. What is going to be interesting to monitor is the issue of ‘time’- Santos has entered into his second term, and unless a final settlement begins to take form soon, the actual implementation of a peace agreement may have to take place under the next administration.  As such, progression will have to be made very soon to prevent talks from falling through, with both sides attempting to secure what they can to enhance their own standing post-settlement.  The next few months will likely be the final ‘make or break’ stage, and I am interested to see what concessions will be made, including a potential bilateral ceasefire.

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