Critics of President Juan Manuel Santos habitually deride his decision to renew peace negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as a personal ploy to win a Nobel Prize or future seat on the United Nations Security Council. While such speculations are farfetched, they touch upon a larger issue: the average Colombian feels excluded from the government’s highly politicized dialogues with leftist rebels.
During a national address on March 10, the President revealed the creation of a commission made up of diverse political, religious, business, military, and indigenous leaders to advise him during the “definitive phase” of the ongoing talks with guerrilla commanders. “The President of the Republic can’t make peace alone, and it certainly does not belong to Juan Manuel Santos. Peace belongs to all Colombians,” he said.
International media and human rights organizations focused heavily on the simultaneous announcement that the Armed Forces would suspend aerial bombings of FARC camps for a month. Colombian politicians and news pundits were busier analyzing the potential impact of regular meetings between President Santos and some of his fiercest adversaries.
Former President Andrés Pastrana accepted the invitation through Twitter, where he wrote: “Colombia’s peace is above any political difference.” Martha Lucía Ramírez, a former Defense Minister and challenger to Santos during the 2014 presidential elections, announced via YouTube that she would participate as well. In recent years, both Conservative Party politicians have more often used social media to accuse the government of doling out impunity for guerrilla war crimes.
In contrast, officials from Democratic Center, a party founded by previous President Álvaro Uribe in opposition to the peace talks, rejected the offer made to Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who narrowly lost a run-off election to Santos last June. Zuluaga claimed that there was no guarantee of an authentic debate, while Uribe penned an open letter stating that his political movement would set up its own internal commission to analyze the discussions with “narco-terrorists.”
Uribe has repeatedly spurned proposals to meet with the President or members of the peace negotiating team, but public pressure is mounting for him to accept the olive branch. Colombia’s Inspector General, who does not go a single week without criticizing the current administration, surprised the nation by asking Uribe to join the advisory committee in order to express his concerns in a more formal setting.
Moreover, domestic approval of the peace process has reached a record high of 72 percent, according to the latest Gallup poll, following a string of accomplishments: the visit to Havana by Kofi Annan, the appointment of a United States envoy to the negotiations, the announcement by the guerrillas of a minimum recruitment age, and the agreement between the government and the FARC to eradicate anti-personnel mines.
For the first time in history, it appears that the government and the FARC will sign a definitive peace accord. It is unlikely that a shrewd politician like Uribe will want to enter Colombia’s post-conflict phase as an opponent of reconciliation and transformation. Just as the leftist rebels espouse more extreme rhetoric in public than in private, Uribe will also find his way into the country’s peacebuilding efforts.
The presently strained political atmosphere will benefit from conversations among a broad range of representatives that can meet face-to-face, behind closed doors. The first committee meeting was held on March 16, after which participants refrained from partisan media stunts and respected the government’s request for discretion regarding details of the debates.
Nevertheless, a reduction in public bickering is only one step towards a more inclusive culture of peace. Co- lombians don’t just need more political representatives to hammer out the content of the remaining peace agenda items regarding the rights of victims, transitional justice, and the demobilization of guerrillas. After all, the voter turnout rates for presidential elections last year were the lowest Colombia has seen in 20 years.
Instead of focusing exclusively on the length of jail sentences for FARC commanders, legislators and administrators will need to increase the level of discussion about truth commissions, reintegration efforts, and forgiveness. Urban dwellers will have to reflect on a conflict that has raged for decades in the rural periphery. Ultimately, a lasting peace in Colombia can only be built among Colombians themselves.