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Building confidence for peace in Colombia

Virginia M. Bouvier
Senior Program Officer for Latin America, United States Institute of Peace
Virginia M. Bouvier

Virginia M. Bouvier

A decade after the last round of dialogues between the Colombian government and the FARC ended in Caguán, peace is again peeking over the horizon in Colombia. For many, the announcement of Colombia's peace process just a few months ago was an unexpected surprise.

We know now that the Colombian government established contact with the FARC shortly after Santos took office and that from February until August 2012 the parties engaged in six months of secret exploratory talks in Cuba - what is now referred to as Phase One of the three anticipated phases of the peace talks. Phase Two began on October 18th with the launching of the Mesa de Conversación in Norway and its resumption in Havana. Once the parties agree on a peace deal to end the conflict the third and final phase of implementation and peace-building will follow.

In hindsight, the signals that a peace process was coming could not have been clearer. Both the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) had been publicizing their desire to talk peace with the government for more than two years. In January 2012, FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez, a.k.a. Timochenko, called on Santos to address the agenda that was still pending from the peace talks in Caguán a decade ago. The ELN leadership has echoed the calls for dialogue, although so far different agendas and priorities have precluded its participation at the peace tables in Havana.

For his part, President Santos has spoken of the need for reconciliation in Colombia since he came to office. In his inauguration speech, Santos announced that he guarded the key to peace in his pocket and would use it when conditions were right. This marked a major shift from the era of former President Alvaro Uribe, who denied the existence of an armed conflict in Colombia altogether.

The parties have quietly engaged in a cumulative process of linked commitments that have built mutual trust in the process. The government advanced a legislative agenda that addressed key FARC priorities on agrarian issues and a constitutional amendment that would provide a framework for future negotiations. It lifted outstanding arrest warrants against members of the FARC negotiating team and has legalized the Marcha Patriótica, which provides a potential platform for future ex-FARC engagement in civic life. For its part, the FARC announced it would cease the practice of kidnapping, released its remaining military and police hostages, and on November 19 declared a unilateral ceasefire that would last through January 20, 2013.

Civil society has no official representative participating in the peace talks - and some sectors are clamoring for a place at the table. However, to suggest that civil society has not had a role in this peace process would be highly misleading. The preamble of the framework agreement signed by the parties on August 26 specifies that the Mesas de Conversación are in response to "the clamor of the population for peace." This clamor has been growing. For the last two years, Colombianos y Colombianas por la Paz, a civil society alliance led by former Senator Piedad Córdoba, has engaged in "epistolary dialogues" on humanitarian and peace issues with the FARC and the ELN. Academics, former combatants, and religious leaders have done the same. Women's organizations, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, labor leaders, peasants, victims' groups, journalists, human rights defenders, cultural workers and artists, and politicians—have also intensified their call for peace, as have a variety of social movements and new platforms, including the Ruta Social por la Paz, Mujeres por la Paz, and the Mesa Nacional de Unidad Agraria.

The framework agreement anticipates three general vehicles for civil participation: consultations with experts, establishing a mechanism for receiving proposals electronically or in person, and "direct consultations" - possibly conducted by a third party. These mechanisms are in the process of being defined. At this point, civil society groups are supporting the talks, pressuring for ceasefires and humanitarian agreements, and expecting to engage in the implementation of agreements.

The broader civil society needs to be brought along, however. Although President Santos' popularity skyrocketed after he announced the talks, the prior experience in Caguán hangs heavy over the Colombian psyche. Much like Charlie Brown in the "Peanuts" comic strip, who time after time tries to kick the football only to have it whisked away by Lucy, Colombians fear that the peace they so desperately want will be pulled out from under them at the last minute. This could happen, but there are many good reasons to envision a different denouement this time around.

First, the teams have already worked together and achieved a framework agreement that details the path ahead. The agreed agenda includes six items, and is more focused and manageable than previous agendas. Second, both parties appear to have accepted that a military victory is not possible. Third, the process appears to be serious and well designed, and the parties agree that the goal is to end the conflict. Fourth, both parties are building on lessons learned from the past. Among other things, they have maintained considerable discretion and are largely avoiding the temptation to negotiate through the press, which proved disastrous for the last peace process. Likewise, the government negotiating team includes representatives from the military, police, and business — sectors that have been spoilers in past peace processes. Fifth, both sides have upheld the agreements that have been made thus far. Sixth, the international context is more favorable for peace today than it was in Caguán. Armed struggle in Latin America has fallen out of favor and change through the ballot box is demonstrably possible. Finally, the international community, through Cuba, Norway, Venezuela, and Chile, is playing a quietly constructive role in helping to move the process along. While there will undoubtedly be bumps, delays, and crashes along the way, the prospects for peace look better than they have in many years.