It can be difficult for metropolitan crowds to grasp the significance of ending the sole and longest-running armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere. When the FARC formed a half- century earlier, the majority of Colombians lived in rural areas. Nowadays, over three-quarters of the population reside in urban centers, and are far more concerned about socioeconomic crime, such as street muggings, than guerrilla activity. Nevertheless, in 2014, Colombian citizens, the National Government, and the guerrillas consolidated their support for the peace talks in Havana. Despite fluctuations in poll results and low levels of confidence in a successful outcome, the majority of the population has consistently favored a negotiated settlement to the conflict. In June, the nation opted to re-elect President Santos in a so-called “referendum on peace” and display of support for the dialogues.
The current administration has bet its political capital on stemming the bloodshed, and has rallied international commitment to help implement plans outlined in a peace treaty covering five substantive agenda points. Initiatives in Congress, such as the current tax reform legislation, assume a post-conflict scenario in the next several years. Nearly every speech made by President Santos now ends by pointing out the social and economic benefits of peace. Finally, in November the FARC demonstrated its commitment to reaching an agreement with the Government by swiftly releasing General Rubén Darío Alzate, the highest-ranking active military member ever captured by the guerrillas, following the President’s unilateral suspension of the dialogues. High-profile kidnappings have facilitated the breakdown of peace talks in the past, but the FARC negotiators in Havana deflated rumors about a rupture in their unity of command and displayed a newfound respect for public opinion.
Yet political scandals and mud- slinging back home have often over-shadowed historic advances in Cuba. In May this year, exactly one day after the Government and the FARC announced a plan to confront the illegal drug trade, a video surfaced of former presidential candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga allegedly planning to sabotage the peace process. Two rounds of national elections left the negotiations highly politicized, with proponents and opponents accusing one another of supporting Marxism and Fascism, respectively. Moreover, in the absence of a bilateral ceasefire, Colombians are confused and frustrated by domestic guerrilla attacks. Historically, peace dialogues accompanied by ongoing military operations tend to generate an escalation in violence, given that counterparts often associate their success on the battlefield with a stronger hand at the negotiating table. But popular opinion can rapidly sour as a result, especially in Colombia, where eighty percent of the conflict’s victims are civilians, according to the National Center of Historical Memory.
As the Government and FARC sit down to establish terms for restarting the peace process, they should respond to the national clamor for a de-escalation of the conflict. Although the guerrillas have taken advantage of previous ceasefire agreements to strengthen their forces and to increase participation in criminal activities such as coca production and kidnapping, both sides stand to benefit from establishing a set of “humanitarian accords.”
With the last delegation of victims selected by the United Nations expected to travel to Cuba in the coming weeks, the negotiating teams will soon move on to the final agenda points: transitional justice, and the demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of the guerrillas. Congress claims that, in order for a national referendum on the peace accords to coincide with local elections in 2015, a treaty will have to be signed early next year. The FARC are unlikely to meet any deadlines set by the Government, but aspirations to present candidates for political office may help to accelerate discussions. More importantly, the guerrillas should recall that the national population’s patience is finite, and that the true peace-building efforts can only begin in Colombia after signing a piece of paper in Havana.