In the second week of October, the President of Colombia imprudently floated the idea of freezing the ongoing peace process with the FARC throughout the voting season. Over breakfast with leading members of his Party of the U, Santos explained that legislative and presidential elections slated for the first half of 2014 could place unnecessary strain on the negotiations in Cuba. While the consulted legislators largely rejected the notion of any “pause” in dialogues, the proposal generated fierce debate in the media. FARC spokesman “Andrés París” replied that the leftist rebel group would be willing to put the talks on hold, so long as the decision was bilateral. Former Senator Piedad Córdoba and Representative Iván Cepeda, speaking on behalf of the NGO Colombians for Peace, surprised the nation by publicly backing the initiative, albeit accompanied by a ceasefire and measures to protect gains reached thus far at the negotiating table.
Ending the peace process outright is at this point unlikely, but a temporary recess would prove equally fatal. The noble intent to insulate the conversations from political pressures would have precisely the opposite effect, subjecting the dialogues to fierce exploitation by critics and converting the elections into a national plebiscite on whether or not to renew the talks at all. Indeed, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, the presidential candidate for the nascent Uribe Centro Democrático Party, has already made termination of negotiations the crux of his campaign.
A hiatus in discussions would moreover encourage a military escalation between the State and the leftist guerrillas, further hobbling the peace process. The Santos administration would no doubt reject a bilateral armistice, and electoral rhetoric would encourage a major offensive against “terrorism.” The FARC would subsequently declare it impossible to maintain any form of unilateral ceasefire, and launch a series of nationwide attacks in order to show that they are not defeated.
What the peace process requires right now are concrete advances. The wave of enthusiasm that erupted last May after an agreement was reached on the first point of the agenda, land reform, has long since subsided. Although recent polls reveal that the majority of Colombians still support dialogues with the FARC, patience is rapidly wearing thin.
As the guerrilla commanders continue to sip on mojitos in sunny Ha- vana, it would be in their best interest to remember that their national support wavers in single digits, and that the general public is weary of fiery rhetoric. The FARC must discontinue its relentless request for a Constituent Assembly, which has been categorically denied by the government since the inception of the peace process, as well as its attempt to expand the scope of the conversations with dozens of new proposals each week.
President Santos has publicly urged the guerrillas to reach an agreement on the second point of the agenda, political participation of the opposition, before the first year anniversary of discussions on November 18. On Thursday, October 31, the negotiating teams of the Colombian government and the FARC released a joint statement announcing the extension of the current round of dialogues by several days in order to advance discussions.
As the former Minister of Defense who delivered the most striking blows against the FARC, President Santos is well aware that no number of military tactics will end Colombia’s armed conflict. The only exit from the warfare that has left over 220,000 largely civilian casualties since 1958 is a political and negotiated solution. This historic moment for peace may never present itself again, and rather than a “pause” it needs a step on the accelerator.