On May 27, the head commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) released a video-message to commemorate “fifty years of incorruptible battle.” Speaking from the jungle, alias “Timochenko” warned that the leftist guerrilla group would never agree to a “humiliating surrender” and would “fight as long as it takes.”
The rhetoric was less fiery in Havana, Cuba, the site of ongoing negotiations between the rebels and the Colombian government. In the midst of a temporary unilateral ceasefire, FARC delegates declined to comment on the results of the first round of presidential elections. Nonetheless, the guerrillas were likely wondering if their best chance in history at signing a peace accord was unraveling back home.
Only two days prior, President Santos had narrowly lost the first round of elections to Óscar Iván Zuluaga of the right-wing Democratic Center party. The candidates will now face each other in a run-off vote on June 15, which the incumbent has tried to frame as a choice “between those who want an end to the war, and those who prefer a war without end.”
In his victory speech, Zuluaga, a fierce critic of the peace talks, argued that Colombia should not let the “leading narco-trafficking cartel in the world” pretend to “command” the country from Havana. The following day, Zuluaga confirmed that he would immediately suspend negotiations upon taking office, and subject their renewal to compliance by the guerrillas with a series of rigid stipulations.
Proponents of dialogues with the FARC accused Zuluaga of thinly veiling his desire to end the peace process by setting “impossible conditions.” The guerrillas, who believe that they are sitting at the negotiating table on equal terms with the government, would be unwilling to adhere to a permanent unilateral ceasefire. Rebels found guilty of war crimes would never accept “at least six years” in prison, nor barred access to political office.
Only three days after elections, media in Colombia and around the world announced the candidate’s alleged “180 degree turn” and “softened tone” toward the peace talks. Zuluaga, who since October 2013 had sworn to end conversations with “terrorists,” now claimed to have “always” supported a negotiated peace. Former President Álvaro Uribe, whose silhouette adorns the official Democratic Center logo, stated that his ex-Finance Minister had “never” spoken about ending dialogues with the FARC.
The supposed change of heart resulted from a deal with Conservative Party nominee Marta Lucía Ramírez, who came in third place on May 25. Ramírez agreed to endorse Zuluaga’s bid in exchange for accepting some of her proposals, including a new set of vocabulary regarding the peace talks. In a joint statement, the candidates declared that negotiations would continue under a Zuluaga presidency, so long as the Farc agreed to a revised set of demands.
Despite the alluring headlines, Zuluaga is promoting a politically appealing package that, in practice, is just as prone to result in the breakdown of peace negotiations. First, the FARC are unlikely to accept an evaluation by Zuluaga of the agreements already reached on the agenda points of land reform, political participation, and illicit drugs. The candidate’s demand that he be able to reject part or all of the accords would push the dialogues back to their public launch in October 2012.
Second, demands for the guerrillas to end the recruitment of minors, stop laying antipersonnel mines, cease kidnapping and extortion, shut down all activities related to narco-trafficking, suspend attacks on civilians and infrastructure, and refrain from all war crimes, are admirable but impossible to verify. In a nation where the media has replaced a broken judicial system as arbiter, a single misplaced accusation could derail discussions. Moreover, infractions during even temporary guerrilla ceasefires have revealed that the FARC do not maintain a unity of command capable of wholly meeting the conditions.
Finally, the FARC have already approved many of the demands set by Zuluaga, but only under the dialogues’ unofficial slogan, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” The Santos administration would have been delighted to negotiate under such stringent terms. Yet despite heavy blows by the Colombian military to the FARC’s size and operational capacity, the guerrillas remain undefeated, and all too capable of getting up from the negotiating table once again.
Zuluaga has nevertheless dealt a blow to the Santos campaign’s message of “peace versus war.” By coopting the banner of the Presidency, Democratic Center offers the politically disengaged voter the attractive yet illusory promise of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) of the FARC. Zuluaga is the answer to a population of which the majority supports a peace process, but is equally pessimistic about its prospect for success, and unwilling to address the root causes of its nation’s violence.
The peace process offered by the Santos administration is imperfect, but could finally end the Western Hemisphere’s longest-running conflict. Colombia’s most violent periods since the 1940s have followed the collapse of peace negotiations. While the nation has thrived even during a half century of coexistence with the FARC, it is time to imagine its potential in peace.