Bogota, Colombia (NI) – Following an army strike that claimed the lives of 26 of its militants, on 22 May the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) suspended the unilateral ceasefire it had implemented on 20 December last year. Issued by representatives of the guerrilla group (which since the end of November has been taking part in Cuba-based negotiations with President Juan Manuel Santos’ government to end Colombia’s 51-year conflict), the statement marks a key turning point in the peace talks.
Though President Santos had never formally agreed to a bilateral ceasefire as demanded by the guerrillas, he had chosen to reward the FARC’s unilateral ceasefire by suspending air strikes against guerrilla settlements for a month-long trial period from 11 March. This was then extended on 9 April for another month. The government’s concession, together with the decision to begin joint operations with the guerrillas to remove anti-personnel mines, seemed to have marked a new stage in FARC-government relations.
This latest step taken by the FARC’s leaders is a huge blow to the progress made in the past few months, but it also begs a fundamental question: to what extent was the FARC ceasefire truly a ceasefire?
Notwithstanding its alleged commitment to the unilateral ceasefire, the FARC’s actions against the military had never come to a complete halt. Despite a significant reduction in the violence associated with the armed conflict, which, according to analyses carried out by CERAC, had plummeted to levels unseen since the mid-1980s, the guerrilla group’s offensives against the armed forces had recently increased. From the implementation of the ceasefire on 20 December to its premature suspension, the FARC had carried out 21 operations that violated its very terms. Eight of these violations have happened since 20 April. Most notably, on 15 April, an ambush led by fighters of the Miller Perdomo column killed 11 soldiers and injured 24 others in a municipality in the department of Cauca, plunging the peace process into a new crisis.
Seen from this angle, the FARC’s decision to suspend the ceasefire merely formalizes a progressive breakdown of the truce that had begun long before last week’s massacre. This is not to downplay the significance of the decrease in violence that the unilateral ceasefire had brought about, but rather to highlight the extent to which the truce had already begun to show signs of weaknesses that had complicated the progress of the peace talks.
The aftermath of the FARC’s decision now poses new challenges that President Santos must address. The guerrilla group’s statement opens by saying that the FARC’s decision to suspend its ceasefire came about as a result of government ineptitude. By shifting the blame – and the responsibility of what will come next – onto the President, the FARC may be able to undermine the Colombian people’s support both for the President himself and for the government-backed peace talks at a time when both have registered an all-time low. According to recent polls, the President’s approval rate is now just 29 per cent, while 69 per cent of Colombians do not believe that a peace accord with the guerrilla group will be signed.
At the same time, the suspension of the ceasefire may reinvigorate the opposition, led by former president Alvaro Uribe’s Centro Democratico Party, which can now capitalize on the public’s distrust for the negotiations and secure the support of those sections of the armed forces more or less explicitly opposed to Santos’ agenda in Cuba.
Yet there are reasons to believe the FARC’s decision will not lead to a sudden and irreversible halt of the peace process. Both the government and the guerrillas have invested too much for an abrupt withdrawal from the negotiating table to be a profitable move. FARC negotiator Pablo Catatumbo himself claimed on Monday that Thursday’s deadly raid by the army represented a ‘step back’, but that the progress made since the talks began in 2012 should not be ‘thrown overboard’, adding that with continued negotiations, ‘an alternative to war is possible’.
But if the ceasefire had opened the door to a possible bilateral truce, its suspension means that the peace process will be conducted in the midst of an internal armed conflict. For Santos, this will be no easy task. The toughest challenge his government must address is how to deal with the troublesome dichotomy of talking peace in Cuba while simultaneously fighting a war at home. If this is to be truly the peace of all Colombians, the government must find a way to justify its agenda to the people and make sure the voices of the victims of the conflict do not go unheard.
Only then will an agreement in Cuba be a legitimate one – whenever it is signed.