The government’s top peace negotiator Humberto de la Calle, this week said the Havana dialogues were approaching their conclusion. Some took this as a threat to the FARC that the government would walk away from the table if it didn’t deescalate the guerrilla violence. The FARC “responded” by calling a month-long unilateral ceasefire.
But is this part of a game to soften the public up to the idea of a bilateral ceasefire in which the Colombian army halt all military action against the FARC? If so, President Santos is being well and truly outsmarted by the FARC negotiating team.
Only the most fawning of courtiers, the most lizard tongued apparatchik, would deny that President Juan Manuel Santos is being outplayed by the FARC guerrillas in Havana.
For months the FARC have been calling the shots. Declining to agree on anything substantial put on the negotiating table, the FARC have dug their feet in. Yes, there have been warm words on a truth commission and on efforts to dig up the landmines planted by the FARC. But in a sense these are side issues, not on the agenda agreed at the beginning of the dialogues.
For progress to be real, the government and the FARC must find a way forward on the issue of justice and victim reparation (the blockage is said to boil down to whether the FARC will go to jail, and if not, how will they pay for their crimes). The negotiating table has been stuck on this for fully 12 months.
Meanwhile, the guerrillas have upped the ante on the ground war. Soldiers have been ambushed and massacred, whole towns like Tumaco and Buenaventura brought to their knees, and 1000s of acres of lush jungle environment destroyed by oil spills.
The FARC’s message is, “you may think we’re down and out, Mr President, but we’re alive and kicking. We hold the cards”.
Rumours swirled, (not least when Mayor Gustavo Petro appeared to confirm them on Twitter), that the FARC were ready to attack Bogota directly. A series of offensives in the capital were imminent, we were told. Panicked journalists started to sit up and take notice. Par for the course that poor and marginalised communities on the pacific coast were under attack. But the sight of the Barbarians at the gates spooked the hacks.
Little surprise then, when the polls a few days later showed a record number of Colombians had lost faith in the talks. Thankfully, support for the idea of the dialogues had not entirely dissolved, but optimism that Mr Santos’ government could navigate them towards a successful conclusion, had.
At the same time, the president’s leadership has been called into question by all but the most loyal. By some calculations, just a quarter of Colombians now support the president. Discontent with his ailing and failing regime grows by the day.
The FARC, hardened by 5 decades of war, have a nose for the scent of blood. And there has been a stench of it in the presidential palace recently.
When Mr Santos won the presidential election in the summer of 2014, he did so by promising peace. A vote for me is a vote for peace, he told us. But peace was not something within his gift. It relies on the will of the others to do business.
Santos may have won the election, but he had instantly become a hostage to the will of the FARC. The dynamics shifted and the rubber-booted comrades knew they had gone from the vanquished to kingpins in the space of a few short years.
So they dragged their feet. They sat tight and played the government for months and months and months until the time was right to launch an offensive. Catching Santos off guard, they caused “the worst environmental disaster in ten years”, they slit the throats of soldiers as they slept, they cut the electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes, and they watched on in satisfaction as the oil bled and the peso devalued.
If Mr President has a Situation Room, it was slow and cumbersome to react. Colombians were frightened and angered. What was their president doing?
Some called on the president to get tough, to bomb the life out of the FARC. Others told him to put time limits on the peace talks. Give the FARC until Christmas to show they mean business, demanded (even) members of Santos’ own party. But he vacillated, neither punishing the FARC nor changing the rules of engagement in Havana.
The FARC had got away with it. They had tested the government’s resolve. They could be forgiven for concluding Mr Santos wasn’t prepared to do anything that threatened the talks.
I can hear Timochenko and Ivan Marquez clinking their tumblers of rum. Perfect!
The cultured and unflappable Humberto de la Calle was dispatched to the airwaves to make what was supposed to sound like a threat. He told the affable Juan Gossain in different words, “unless the FARC pack this in, we’ll up sticks”.
But we all know that Mr Santos cannot really call it off. As soon as he wrapped his election campaign around the white flag of peace he was stuffed.
The distressing truth is that in his desperation to be re-elected, Mr Santos may have squandered the best chance Colombia has for peace. The FARC are emboldened and are devouring a wimpish government. Unfortunately for Santos, he just hasn’t the charisma or the powers of persuasion to take Colombia with him.
Worse, it is impossible to see how Santos could realistically carry on in power if he halted the peace process. He has no mandate for anything else. Under normal rules, having called the talks off, he would be expected to resign and call a new election. But this is Colombia and he would probably limp on for three interminable years.
However you look at it, the Santos presidency is reliant on peace. Fail to negotiate an end to the conflict with the FARC and Mr Santos will go down in history as an abject failure.
So it is reasonable to assume the FARC are buoyed, that they feel anything they propose will eventually be conceded to by Mr Santos.
And the bilateral ceasefire is the FARC’s big prize. It will mean the guerrillas can carry on their activities without the threat of being killed in action.
They have sent a warning shot to Santos over the past months. Mr Santos has blinked. The danger is he unable to reopen his eyes and regain some semblance of leadership.
Only a few months ago, not even former guerrilla (and now senator) Antonio Navarro thought a bilateral ceasefire was possible (or desirable) until the FARC discontinued ALL of their criminal activities – narcotrafficking, extortion, etc.
So is Santos about to throw his last dice and halt all offensives against the FARC?
Weak men in dramatic times do desperate things.
Kevin is a political consultant and lobbyist who cut his teeth working in the UK Parliament. He is a regular panelist on Colombian television, a political communication strategist and a university lecturer. Kevin is the founder and editor of Colombia Politics.