In 2012, Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), formally launched a new round of peace talks to end the longstanding internal armed conflict. The proposed negotiations, hosted in Cuba, were celebrated internationally, however amongst Colombians the peace talks have been met with a degree of guarded optimism. This is partly due to the failure of previous peace talks that occurred between 1999 and 2002 and a strong anti-negotiation campaign lead by opposition groups. So, which key players are against the prospect of an agreement that would mean an end to casualties on both sides, and what are their reasons behind such a controversial stance?
When the Colombian government and FARC-EP announced last year on September 24th that the peace talks were close to a final agreement, both President Santos’ popularity and public support for the peace talks increased. Over the years, Colombian perceptions regarding the peace process have fluctuated greatly. Different interests groups including alleged sectors within the armed forces, large landowner associations and other conservative groups have tried to influence the general opinion, and voice their opposition to the peace talks.
The initial contacts between FARC-EP and the government were made through back channels, in order to avoid the negative public opinion that resulted from the previous failed peace talks. Although initially received with enthusiasm, public approval rates for the talks quickly plummeted along with the president’s popularity. This was partly due to external factors unrelated to the peace talks that damaged public opinion towards the government. For example, in mid-November, the International Court of Justice ruled in favor of Nicaragua in a long-standing territorial dispute with Colombia, which lowered public confidence in the ability of the government to favorably resolve diplomatic disputes.
An influential figurehead in the campaign against peace talks has been Colombia’s former president Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010). Uribe’s flaming rhetoric against FARC-EP is nothing new. The electoral platform that carried him to office in 2002 centered on two main points – confronting the guerillas head-on and increasing levels of security in Colombia. During his eight years in office, the government waged an uncompromising military campaign against the FARC-EP. While Uribe made significantly reduced FARC-EP military capabilities, he failed to comprehensively defeat them. During the same period, Uribe’s administration reached a peace deal with the right-wing paramilitaries AUC, which used for the first time in Colombia the legal mechanism of ‘Transitional Justice’. Transitional justice is a legal framework that includes a special prosecution model in which alternative sentencing for those former militants whom contribute to clarify with the truth and to repair the victims of the conflict.
Despite accusations of human rights violations, espionage and right-wing militia collaboration during his term, Uribe still enjoys strong public support. Instead of drifting into political obscurity after his presidency, Uribe has continued to wage a verbal war against the peace talks.
The breakthrough in negotiations in September last year was met by unilateral condemnation by Uribe, who stated that any such agreement would represent merely “a coup against democracy” and “promote more violence”. Under the current terms in the agreement, Colombian judges would be authorized to use the mechanism of transitional justice to offer reduced sentences in return for confessions, including forced labor instead of jail time. To Uribe, this would represent letting killers escape appropriate punishment for their crimes. Not only Uribe but also Human Rights Watch has condemned the agreements in what they consider a violation to human rights. In their view the agreement is to ambiguous in the regard to the mechanism that will be employed to judge those who committed serious human right violations, on both sides. As a result human rights violators will escape meaningful punishment, such sentiment often finds support amongst Colombians. However, peace advocates insist that compromises need to be made in order to end the violence once and for all, and that a legal mechanism for healing the social wounds caused by the conflict is as important as justice.
Another important player in Uribe’s anti-peace talk camp is the Colombian armed forces. Uribe’s administration increased both the military budget and the size of the armed forces significantly to combat FARC-EP, thus currying favor with influential generals and officers. Under a constitutional mandate, active army officers cannot publicly criticize political leaders, so it is difficult to gauge the general opinion amongst serving soldiers. However, the Association of Retired Officers (ACORE) has been publicly critical of the peace talks and what they consider as a submissive government position, throwing their support behind Uribe. In the murky world of Colombian politics, it is clear that personal political loyalties still hold true for many members of the armed forces. For example, in February 2014, Colombian media revealed evidence that Colombian military intelligence hackers were intercepting emails between FARC-EP and international journalists. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos decried the “dark forces” behind the espionage attempt, and most believe that Uribe had a hand in the interceptions.
Other interests groups such as the cattle rancher federation FEDEGAN have opposed any kind of negotiation between the government and FARC-EP. In FEDEGAN president’s views, FARC-EP are a terrorist organization and only an unconditional surrender to the government justice would be an ideal end to the conflict. However, one of the central points in the negotiations between the government and FARC-EP is the agrarian reform; Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world and small producers have been historically deprived to the access to land. FEDEGAN represents the traditional landowner elite, which has been historically close to the government, and has opposed any type of land reform.
Rates of support for the peace process have often changed, but currently most Colombians are cautiously optimistic about the possibility of an enduring peace. Uribe’s popularity has plummeted as he is increasingly regarded as a stubborn obstacle to an end to the violence. Nevertheless, there remains an undercurrent of anti-peace agreement sentiment that represents those unwilling to accept a reduction of punishment for FARC-EP members. Even among those who support the peace deal, there are different opinions about the mechanisms and penalties that should be used to judge FARC-EP members. Also, a large segment of the public opinion does not appear to be willing to accept FARC-EP as a legitimate political group, but are favorable for the land reform, which FARC-EP advocates. The opinions are also divided between rural and urban areas, with those who have been more closely affected by the conflict, being more willing to reach a compromise to end the violence.
A crucial and final key item that needs to be decided is the role that the civil society will have in agreeing to the potential peace agreement. Currently there is a project in congress, which will demand that Colombians would have to vote in order to ratify what has been agreed in Havana. Finally, FARC-EP are not the last insurgent group in Colombia, the ELN is still active and the government will have to find a way to bring them into the table to negotiate it.