The Colombian government announced that it will begin peace negotiations with the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), signaling a potential end to the hemisphere’s longest-running armed conflict. USIP’s Virginia Bouvier examines the steps ahead.

Photo courtesy of NY Times

The Colombian government recently announced that it will begin peace negotiations with the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), signaling the start of a process that could end to the hemisphere’s longest-running armed conflict.

USIP’s Virginia Bouvier discusses the significance of the development, what is likely to happen next in the process, and potential bumps on the road to peace.

Why is this a big development?

It is a moment of tremendous hope and expectation. Following a year-and-a half of quiet confidence building measures and six months of secret exploratory talks in Cuba, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño (aka Timoleón Jiménez, aka “Timochenko”) announced that the Colombian government and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC-EP) have agreed to begin peace talks in October. This will be the first time in more than 10 years that formal peace talks with the FARC will take place. Since wars are generally ended by either military victory or a peace accord, and a military victory by either side has been elusive for nearly half a century, the decision to pursue a peace accord now provides hope that the dark era of war may finally come to a close in Colombia. This will not be an instantaneous process, but a peace agreement that is taken seriously by all sides can create a new environment where violence is neither an acceptable or necessary vehicle for securing social change.

What is the significance of the accord reached in Havana?

The “General Accord to End the Conflict and Build a Stable, Enduring Peace,” signed on August 26 at the end the exploratory talks in Havana and made public on September 4, attests to the commitment of both parties to end Colombia’s forty-eight year old conflict. The “General Accord” is not a peace accord, but a framework agreement that attests to the commitment of each side to pursue a peace accord. The agreement defines a limited five-point agenda to be discussed during the peace talks, a timetable, a roadmap for next steps--including establishing mechanisms for implementation and verification of agreements as well as mechanisms for resolving conflicts that may come up during the talks--and a range of other topics that will be further refined in the course of the talks. The agreement provides a flexible structure that will enable the process to move forward, and articulates a role for the international community in facilitating and guaranteeing the process.

What is the agenda that has been laid out at this stage?

The fact that an agenda has been defined before the official talks begin is already quite significant. The parties have agreed on a limited, five-point agenda that will include land policies, political participation, the end of the conflict (this would include among other things questions of ceasefires and cessation of hostilities, security guarantees, and addressing paramilitary violence), drug production and trafficking, and truth and reparations for victims.

Agrarian policy is the first item on the agenda for Oslo. The order of the agenda is important. Often parties choose to begin with the easier items in order to build confidence and show early results. Here, the parties have agreed to begin with the issue that is perhaps the most difficult. Nonetheless, land has been at the crux of the insurgents’ agenda from the start, and there seems to already be at least some basic agreement between the sides on the need for structural change. The distribution of wealth in Colombia is one of the worst in the world and has become more pronounced in the last decade. Land reform or restitution of lands, victims’ rights, and reparations have been front and center on the presidential agenda since Santos assumed office. Mauricio Jaramillo, the head of the FARC delegation and a participant in the exploratory talks, noted at a press conference this past Thursday in Havana that there are really at least five or six agrarian reforms required for the different regions of the country. This will be a complex discussion.

What happens next in the process?

The process is moving forward quickly and is expected to be a matter of “months, not years,” according to President Santos. Much of the preparatory work is already in place. The Attorney General has announced that arrest warrants will be suspended for those guerrillas who participate in the peace talks. Each negotiating team has the option of naming up to 10 negotiators, of which five will be full plenipotentiaries, and can have up to 30 members on their delegation. Yesterday, the government named Humberto de la Calle as its lead negotiator, and announced that its negotiating team would include Luis Carlos Villegas, president of the National Association of Industrialists; Oscar Naranjo, ex-director of the National Police; Jorge Enrique Mora, ex-commander of the Armed Forces; Frank Pearl, ex-Minister of the Environment and former High Commissioner for Re-Integration; and Sergio Jaramillo, former head of National Security, who will now become the High Commissioner for Peace. 

On Sept. 6, FARC participants in the exploratory process in Cuba held their own press conference in Havana, where they disclosed the names of the three members of their negotiating team who have been elected thus far—Iván Márquez, of the FARC Secretariat; Jesús Santrich, of the FARC Central Command; and Simón Trinidad, a FARC political leader serving a 60-year sentence in U.S. prison.  Before a full house of journalists at Havana’s conference center, FARC leaders discussed their hopes and aspirations for peace, and answered a wide range of questions related to hostages and kidnappings, negotiating during ongoing warfare, the FARC position on extradition and drug-trafficking, and the structural reforms they are seeking. Mauricio Jaramillo announced that the FARC negotiators plan to propose a bilateral ceasefire at the October 8th talks.

What will the role of the international community be in this process?

It is a bit early to know. In the first exploratory phase in Cuba, the governments of Cuba and Norway served as guarantors of the process, and Venezuela spearheaded the logistical challenges and accompanied the process. Cuba, Norway, and Venezuela will continue to be guarantors and accompany the process in the next phase, and Chile (and perhaps others to be mutually agreed upon) will also play a role. Given the agenda items, particularly relating to drug-trafficking, and the FARC’s determination to have Simón Trinidad participate on their negotiating delegation, the United States will clearly have a role to play as well, though it may be behind the scenes. Many countries and organizations have come forward with offers to assist, but the roles have yet to be defined. 

Are you optimistic about the news? Why is this time different from past efforts to reach a peace deal?

This is an amazing time in Colombia’s history and I am cautiously  optimistic. The process will need to open up to greater participation of civil society, but how this will happen has yet to be defined. It is reassuring that quite a number of issues have already been thought through, and that an agenda is already in place. Still, we shouldn’t underestimate the opposition that may garner force as a peace process moves forward. Former President Alvaro Uribe and his supporters, have made clear their opposition to peace talks.  Santos has sought to neutralize military opposition by bringing representatives of that sector, which has undermined peace talks in the past, into the process.  If the agreement really addresses issues of inequity and structural change, powerful sectors of Colombian society are likely to feel threatened. As someone once told me, “When peace comes to Colombia, a lot of people will be taking a pay cut.”

The road ahead may be bumpier than anticipated and will require considerable patience, and recognition that this is a process. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” the parties concluded in the Havana framework agreement.

The war is not over, in fact, it is intensifying.  Peace talks do not always lead to peace, and as Colombia’s last experience with peace talks a decade ago revealed, can lead to more war. Both sides are aware of this history and have underscored their determination not to repeat the mistakes of the past. (I wrote a blog post on this topic last week.) The public yearns for peace but remains understandably skeptical, particularly since the war is intensifying in some parts of the country. Since the parties at this point have agreed to negotiate in the middle of the war, continued violence can be anticipated during the process. Once the cessation of hostilities occurs and a final accord is reached, the real work of peace-building, recovery, and reconciliation will begin. This will be huge, as the scars of decades of war will not heal quickly.

There are welcome signs that things could be different this time around. The care and professionalism with which the process has been undertaken has ensures a safe, secure environment propitious for discussion so essential in these early stages. The quality of the negotiating teams, and the fact that agreements have already been reached and signed are promising steps. The commitment to learn from past lessons is important (see ”Learning Lessons from Past Peace Processes,”, and the decision not to have a demilitarized zone and to hold talks outside of Colombia seem wise. Political will and commitment to the same endgame of ending the conflict seems to exist on both sides. Finally, the national and international contexts seem more propitious for peace than they have been in years. All of these factors suggest that this time peace may be possible.

Follow Virginia Bouvier on peace issues in Colombia at her blog,

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