Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has wagered his legacy on the possibility of peace. He is not the first Colombian leader to do so, but Tuesday’s announcement of an agreement on restitution for the conflict’s victims, following a late September announcement of an agreement on transitional justice, has made it clear that the ongoing talks are making greater headway than ever before.
Santos’ immediate predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, made a very different bet on how to end the country’s five-decade internal conflict. Uribe wielded the military, much improved by U.S. hardware, training and intelligence cooperation, in pursuit of unconditional victory against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Uribe beefed up and deployed the coercive institutions of the Colombian state to improve the government’s position on the battlefield and re-establish state authority—though according to his critics often in collaboration with paramilitaries and at the cost of respect for human rights, according to Uribe’s critics.
There’s no doubt—despite their current personal spat—that Santos’ peace initiatives build on the success Uribe’s war against FARC. But the Colombian president would do well to look back to the administration of President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) who preceded Uribe. Like Santos, Pastrana gambled on a negotiated peace with the FARC. His effort was personal—before his swearing in, he traveled to FARC-held territory to meet the guerrilla leader. While Pastrana’s peace efforts coincided with poor military performance and popular demands for an end to the fighting, it also grew from the leader’s own hope to chart a new path for his country’s political and economic future.
Pastrana’s peace effort failed dramatically, coming to a definitive end when the FARC hijacked a commercial airliner and kidnapped a sitting senator. Despite years of negotiations, the two sides never advanced very far. And while the balance of power between government and rebel forces has changed, there are still important lessons to be learned from Pastrana’s failed effort for both Colombia and the world. Pastrana and his foreign minister sought U.S. and international backing, not just for the military, but for the peace negotiations and economic development. Though the U.S. government has remained more distant from the current talks, international support will be crucial to implementing the peace deal and funding reconstruction.
Peace from strength
Pastrana had little choice but to negotiate from a position of military weakness. Before starting negotiations—and even before taking office—Pastrana and his team quietly turned to the United States for military and economic assistance. In 1998 and 1999, the military weakness of the Colombian state was evident. At the time it was estimated that non-state forces controlled close to 40 percent of Colombian territory. The army struggled to hold territory and pursue the rebel fighters; shortly before Pastrana took office FARC forces even overran an elite military division at El Billar. At the time, Pastrana frequently said that he needed to build an army ready for peace or for war.
Today, the Colombian military is formidable. While the U.S.-funded Plan Colombia is often credited with the improvement in the military’s capabilities today (and blamed for very real human rights abuses), internal reforms and professionalization were equally important.
Plan Colombia’s primary architect, former Colombian planning minister Jaime Ruiz, often noted that the ultimate goal of Plan Colombia was not to reduce drug-trafficking (as U.S. Congressional backers espoused) but to strengthen the Colombian state. But building Colombia’s military is one element of strengthening the state, and one should not mistake military victories for a strong state. A durable peace will be possible only through strengthening state institutions in ways U.S.-bought Blackhawks are irrelevant. Territory long held by the FARC or subject to violence by a host of actors desperately needs an effective, efficient, accountable state that can deliver healthcare, education, infrastructure, and economic development. In many rural areas, these aspects of the Colombian state are not just weak, they don’t even exist.
Making peace during war
Pastrana began his quest for peace with strong public support for a negotiated solution. In fact, as FARC forces neared major cities and violence increasingly affected urbanites, many quarters clamored for a peaceful solution.
But public support for the peace talks gradually eroded for three reasons. First, Pastrana struggled to demonstrate concrete achievements—something Santos has been able to accomplish, as we saw Tuesday with the announcement of an agreement on restitutions for the conflict’s victims. This follows September landmark announcements of a transitional justice agreement and a deadline for the final accord. Second, Pastrana’s talks started with a significant concession—granting the FARC a large safe area where government forces would not attack. Though there were conditions proscribing drug production and military preparations on the zone (frequently called the zona de despeje), most observers agree that the FARC violated them. Third, Pastrana’s negotiations took place while warfare and violence continued. The incongruous image of government officials sitting with FARC leaders even as FARC fighters attacked Colombian soldiers and police (and vice-versa) drew criticism from the public and members of the military. A 2002 cease-fire was never fully respected and collapsed into even greater violence. The public perception of weakness was worsened by extensions of the zona de despeje, even as violence continued elsewhere.
This second problem has bedeviled Santos, too. Having learned from his predecessor’s experience, Santos has refused a ceasefire; knowing the inevitable violations would only sap public support. Still, the significantly weakened FARC has reduced attacks and lowered its profile in exchange for a shot at peace. However, for most of the talks, peace has been far from absolute. In April 2015, a FARC attack killed ten Colombian soldiers. A weak, unilateral FARC ceasefire collapsed, and the government retaliated by bombing FARC encampments. Public support and the viability of the Santos-FARC talks hung in the balance, though the risk appears to have since receded. For Pastrana, the problem proved to be insurmountable; with U.S. military assistance in the offing, the FARC moved to improve its position with a broader, violent campaign. The government risked looking weak—and losing the needed support of military commanders for the peace negotiations—if it did not respond aggressively.
With talks today continuing to advance, there is hope that the parties have enough at stake to avoid a return to violence. However, even accidental encounters can easily turn violent. If this happens, both sides will have to work hard to draw attention back to the negotiating table with quick progress—otherwise public support could quickly dissipate. For a Colombian public schooled by past failures, the FARC will not receive the benefit of the doubt.
Fear the spoilers
A look at the last negotiations reminds us that today’s peace talks are not a simple dialogue between two, coherent sides. There are internal disagreements within both the government and military and the disparate fronts of the FARC regarding positions in the talks—or the likely benefit of negotiations. In addition, there are elements of both that may break from any eventual deal. There are also actors outside the process that might attempt to derail the negotiations. Though not the only one, former president Uribe is the most prominent critic of the current negotiations. Uribe’s military successes have gained him a powerful following within Colombia. His opposition to Santos’ peace talks has been strident and persuasive to many Colombians.
During the previous negotiations, Pastrana at times had to face down opposition from within his government. The military commanders’ dislike for the safe haven granted to the FARC led to the resignation, in protest, of Defense Minister Rodrigo Lloreda. Nor was it clear that the political leadership of the FARC controlled the group’s disparate “fronts”—particularly those whose deeper involvement in drug production and trafficking meant they controlled the purse strings and benefited from an ongoing conflict. In early 1999, FARC members kidnapped and killed three Americans, apparently independently of orders from top leaders. Though they took responsibility, FARC leaders could not, or would not, bring their own members to justice.
The challenge today is two-fold. First, Santos will have to convince his own government that peace will pay more than continued conflict. If the Colombian military faces a situation where both its decades-long mission and its funding appear to be in jeopardy, it will lack incentives to forcefully back a peace deal. The Colombian military has taken large strides in professionalization, but the U.S. military should assure their colleagues that high levels of collaboration will continue.
More difficult is dealing with a fragmented FARC. The Pastrana talks focused on the political leadership of the FARC, especially founding commander Manuel Marulanda. However, it was never clear that the next level of commanders, like the infamous Mono Jojoy, who often controlled territory and sources of funding, had much interest in the talks. In Colombia today, there is concern that a deal with the FARC may not bring as much peace as hoped for if disparate rebel splinter groups essentially transform themselves into criminal groups following a peace accord. But these same groups may have motives to preempt altogether an agreement by their putative leadership with new violence. Any eventual deal cannot be made only with top leadership: if midlevel FARC fighters are not on board, it could be peace in name only.
Lessons for U.S. policy
Though U.S. involvement in Colombia is most often thought of in military and counter-narcotics terms, the U.S. government has also contributed to the peace process. Pastrana sought U.S. support for the talks, which was, somewhat ambivalently, granted through secret talks between State Department representatives and FARC leaders, and with the presence of the U.S. ambassador at the peace talks’ formal opening. And President Bill Clinton accepted Pastrana’s insistence on maintaining a demilitarized zone for the FARC despite criticisms from the U.S. Congress. Pastrana sought open U.S. involvement, believing that the international community would help guarantee the continuity of the peace process.
It’s not clear that the more pronounced U.S. role was helpful at the peace table, though close contacts with U.S. military personnel was crucial in achieving buy-in from the Colombian military for efforts at reform and professionalization. Clinton’s acceptance of Pastrana’s talks and the zona de despeje even as he sought greater military funding was an important signal to Colombian forces. On the other hand, U.S. involvement gave the FARC a reason to argue that Pastrana was not serious about peace. Given the history, any U.S. involvement was seen through the lens of the war on drugs—a connection the U.S. Congressional debate on Plan Colombia cemented.
This helps explain the U.S. role in the current talks, which has been late and low key. The Obama and Santos administrations have largely kept the U.S. government at arm’s length from the current negotiating table—though Bernard Aronson, the assistant secretary of state under George H.W. Bush who helped mediate Central American peace deals, was named U.S. envoy to the peace process in February 2015 at Santos’ request. At the same time, Colombia will need U.S. and European investment to implement an eventual accord, particularly to expand government services in rural Colombia; but a highly visible U.S. role will be counterproductive to the implementation process.
Even if it does provide those resources, the U.S. should avoid temptations to claim credit for any success of the Colombian peace negotiations and the rebuilding that comes afterwards. Above all, the U.S. government will need to give Colombia space to implement their peace—even at the cost of short-term drug policy. Hopefully, the U.S. President, and Congress, will realize that a lasting peace will contribute much more to U.S. interests.
As the Santos administration sits of the verge of unprecedented success in its peace talks, it might be easy to overlook the failures of the past. That would be a mistake. Pastrana’s earnest but failed attempt reminds us that acts of violence can undo even serious attempts at peace by sapping crucial public support. Any renewal of violence, even if by a splinter of the FARC, could exacerbate divisions within the Colombian government. Now that the accords are taking shape, great care must be taken by the Colombian government to ensure that midlevel FARC fighters see them as more beneficial than continued criminality. Meanwhile, the United States should continue its low-key posture, avoiding the temptation to claim credit for an accord, but reassuring the Colombian military of its continued importance, specifically that Congress will continue to support Colombia in peace as it did in war. The shadow of the past hangs heavily over attempts to end Colombia’s decades of conflict; drawing the right lessons from that past could help reshape the country’s future.
Tom Long is author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence (Cambridge University Press, November 2015).In January 2016, he will join the University of Reading as a lecturer of International Relations. Online at www.tomlongphd.com and on Twitter @tomlongphd.