Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos
“Never before has anyone come this far,” said Humberto de la Calle, the Colombian government’s chief negotiator, and former vice-president, following a recent breakthrough in peace talks with the country’s homegrown insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. After nearly ten months of deliberations, negotiators in May reached an agreement on land reform, the first issue in a five-point agenda. Yet with only three months remaining until the proposed end of negotiations, many doubt that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will be able to broker a comprehensive peace accord with the guerrilla army.
With elections looming and his approval rating hovering around 20 percent, the lowest of any Colombian president in more than a decade, Santos is responding to public criticism by talking up the progress his team has made so far in the talks. However, according to one poll, about 75 percent of Colombians disapprove of the way he has handled the FARC issue, up from 63 percent in June. The last Colombian leader to fare this poorly in public approval ratings was former president Andrés Pastrana, whose attempted peace deal with the FARC collapsed in 2002 — along with his chances at reelection.
Similarly, Santos finds himself in a political bind in which his future as president has become tethered to the outcome of the peace talks. Many feel the president’s confident rhetoric avoids a discussion regarding his government’s controversial demobilization policy, one of the primary obstacles to peace. After all, critics have good reason to focus on demobilization — even if an agreement is reached, a lack of needed reform will likely perpetuate the social ills that produced today’s conflict far into the post-insurgency era.
One flaw in the president’s approach toward demobilization is his unwillingness to tone down the military’s hardline posture against the rebels, despite numerous calls from the FARC for a ceasefire. To be sure, the Santos government must tread carefully on the issue, given that the FARC duplicitously used a temporary ceasefire during the Pastrana administration to rearm and mount a lethal counterattack. At the same time, however, Santos must realize that his unrelenting military aggression sets the wrong precedent at a time when negotiators are facilitating the FARC’s passage into politics and society. The president’s recent praise for the army after killing a regional FARC leader, for example, led the FARC leadership to fear a post-demobilization witch-hunt. As long as such hostilities continue, rebel fighters have little reason to believe that the government will uphold a legal framework protecting their safety and rights.
The government also faces the challenge of providing former rebels with basic economic provisions following demobilization. Santos acknowledges that not all FARC members will immediately quit the black market side of the organization; some leaders will likely maintain their involvement in the country’s drug trafficking industry, which supplies about 90 percent of the cocaine on American streets and funds much of the FARC’s activity. The majority of rebels, however, will seek to reintegrate into Colombian society as long as the government facilitates the process and ensures their safety as civilians.
Yet the government’s proposed policy may not defray the cost of reintegration enough to encourage the remaining 8,000 or so FARC members to leave the rebel cause. The maximum stipend that former rebels will receive under the envisioned reintegration program will be about $230 per month for up to two and a half years. According to a poll of former rebels, the stipend severely underestimates the cost of food, clothing, and transportation, not to mention the cost of supporting dependents. As a result, a great number of freshly demobilized fighters may feel pressure to resort to illegal and violent activities to support themselves economically.
Despite the holes in his government’s negotiating position, Santos should be commended for pursuing a negotiated peace rather than victory by military means. After a significant military build-up fueled by billions of dollars in U.S. counter-narcotics aid, the government has finally gained the upper hand in the conflict and can negotiate from a position of power.
For Santos, the stakes — both personal and political — are high in seeking an end to five decades of violent turmoil. An acceptable peace deal requires time — but time is fast running out. The president’s fiercest critics, including former president Álvaro Uribe, are preparing to campaign for Congress on a platform opposed to the peace talks. Therefore, if Santos fails to secure a deal by the May elections and loses out to Uribe, he risks losing all the progress made so far in the peace process. However, instead of rushing to complete a deal, Santos must carefully address the holes in his military and reintegration policies to prevent violence and disorder from sprouting up again in the future. In short, he ought to heed the words of the FARC: “a bad peace deal is worse than war.”
Demetri Papageorgiou is studying Government and Economics in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University.