After months of halting but positive movement, the peace talks between the government and Colombia’s largest rebel group, the FARC, may have hit a road block. That obstacle, as WPR’s Frida Ghitis wrote last week, is Colombia’s fast-approaching elections.
Ghitis warned that the electoral schedule is casting a shadow over the negotiations: “As the clock runs down to the May 2014 presidential election, the prospect of peace hangs in the balance for the country. Colombians are getting restless, taking a decidedly unfavorable view of the president and becoming increasingly suspicious of the secretive process.”
Over the past two days, signs have emerged that the parties are considering pausing the talks until after the election cycle, which includes a congressional election in March. On Tuesday, President Juan Manuel Santos met with his party to discuss options for dealing with the talks in the context of the vote; on the agenda was the possibility of taking a break. Today, a FARC negotiator in Havana told reporters that the rebels would be willing to put the process on hold if the government agreed.
For now, at least, Santos insists the talks will move forward, telling the FARC, “Let’s get this process moving faster.” The president, as Ghitis argued, has staked his personal credibility on reaching a deal. But he has had trouble keeping the talks on schedule.
Despite initially insisting the talks would be concluded by next month, Santos told Bloomberg News he is “optimistic that we will reach an agreement before the elections” in May, cautioning that even that deadline may be “wishful thinking.”
Although the nation as a whole would gain significantly from a deal, not everyone is incentivized to pursue peace. Adam Isacson warned in a WPR briefing last month that Colombia’s military, which has grown powerful in the past decade of intensified anti-rebel operations, could derail the talks. Peace “may mean wrenching changes” for the military, Isacson wrote, adding that there are already signs that military saber-rattling has caused tensions between the Santos and the military leadership.
The FARC, too, may stand to gain from prolonging the talks. Some fighters have become primarily economic rather than ideological actors, with extensive interests in drug trafficking and illegal mining. According to an analysis prepared by Roman Ortiz and Janneth Vargas for the U.S. State Department, “It is very doubtful that these sectors look with any interest at demobilization through the negotiation, particularly when violence has turned out to be a very lucrative way of life for them.” Fighters like these, Oritz and Vargas continue, “see the negotiations only as an instrument to temporarily relieve the military pressure on them and to improve their political image.”
Santos is also under pressure from the political right. His predecessor as president and one-time political mentor, Alvaro Uribe Velez, has formed a new political party to oppose the talks and is seeking a Senate seat for himself.
The political headwinds, then, are strong. The question is whether putting the talks on hold for the election cycle would cause them to fall apart or breathe new life into them by unhooking them from Santos’ re-election prospects. Colombians may soon find out.