By Markus Schultze-Kraft
President Juan Manuel Santos has taken a big political gamble. In late August he announced that his administration had been holding secret talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for more than a year, and that formal negotiations to end the armed conflict with Colombia's largest and oldest insurgent organization would be launched in Oslo in mid-October.
The course of events indicates that the Colombian government is determined to achieve one of the most remarkable feats in the country's recent history: peace with the FARC. Why did Santos take this risk and what should he and his team do to be successful in this grand endeavor, not seen since the flawed and failed talks with the FARC under President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) in the Caguán region?
Peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government: A sensible agendaSupported by Norway, Cuba, Venezuela and Chile, delegations of the Colombian government and the insurgents officially inaugurated the talks in a small town near Oslo on 18 October. The 'general agreement' (in Spanish ‘acuerdo general’) the two parties forged in the run-up to Oslo will serve as a roadmap.
It is a sensible agenda and the two sides should stick resolutely to it during the next eight to ten months – more time they will not have, as has been signaled by President Santos. This is a promising but small window of opportunity that deserves all the goodwill and support it can get; for the incipient talks with the FARC are potentially a game-changing moment in the history of Colombia's conflict.
President Santos: Buttressing policy changeThe negotiations stand to buttress President Santos's goal to move Colombia - which is among the countries of the world with the highest Gini-coefficients or most unequal distribution of wealth - toward more prosperity and well-being across all strata of society. This is so not because the FARC would legitimately represent this political agenda. The group is appreciated by few and feared and despised by a majority in Colombia for its violence, backward ideology and deep involvement in criminal activities.
Rather, finding an effective way to demobilize and reintegrate the FARC into civilian life would deal a blow to those intransigent and reactionary elites who saw their heydays during the two administrations of Santos's predecessor, Álvaro Uribe; and who have used the specter of the FARC as a pretext to further their exclusionary, conservative and neoliberal political-economic agendas. While by no means opposed to opening up Colombia's markets, especially in the natural resource extraction sector, Santos's otherwise more progressive political agenda is an anathema for these elites. Nothing would serve the president better to rein them in than reaching a peace agreement with the FARC.
The way forward for the Colombian government: Sticking to strategyTo achieve this, President Santos and his team should stick closely in the coming months to the strategy they designed for dealing with the FARC. All of the five substantial issues that are up for negotiation – rural development, the FARC's political participation, ending the conflict, resolving Colombia's illicit drug problem, and addressing the rights of victims of the armed conflict – are key to the government's overall transformative economic and socio-political agenda; though, of course, they are only part of the broader political picture.
The armed conflict is only one of Colombia's manifold problemsSantos's approach to dealing with the FARC differs fundamentally from the way his two immediate predecessors, Uribe and Pastrana, approached the issue.
Santos does not try to work naively with the FARC (Pastrana) or single-mindedly against them (Uribe). Rather, since taking office he has sought to work around and – now - through them. This is as clever as it gets, and deserves our applause and support.
It appears that the Colombian government has recognized that the conflict with the FARC is only one of Colombia's manifold problems. Hence, because a military defeat of the insurgents is not feasible in the foreseeable future it is better to 'enlist' the FARC in a broader process of political and socio-economic change.
Taking the FARC out in a 'civil' way will open up vast opportunities for ColombiaTaking the FARC out opens up opportunities to start addressing a whole range of deep-seated issues in Colombia, such as strengthening democratic politics and the rule of law and finding ways to achieve a more equitable distribution of wealth and tapping into Colombia's enormous and growing human and social capital.
Santos is right to pursue the end of the FARC from the vantage point of strengthening Colombia's ailing democracy and institutions and fomenting social peace; and not from the perspective of elite vengeance, hatred and political opportunism, as was the case during the administrations of his predecessors.
Let us support Santos and his team in this exercise of 'big strategy' for peacebuilding. As a recent symposium on Colombia at the Institute of the Americas at University College London revealed, this appears to be the most promising way forward.
Keep an eye on the Governance and Development blog for more Global Peacebuilding.