They say that a bad agreement is better than a good fight. But not, it seems, in Bogotá. Last September, President Juan Manuel Santos launched a formal peace process with Colombia’s Farc guerrillas. This sparked hopes that the hemisphere’s longest internal armed conflict might finally draw to a close.
As the Farc has also funded itself with drug-smuggling (although it denies this), the process has other international implications too. The talks, held in Havana, have already proved a hard slog. But over the Easter holidays, they suffered a series of unexpected and damaging attacks – not from the guerrillas themselves, as you might expect, but from two former Colombian presidents.
Álvaro Uribe, who led an all out offensive on the Farc while president from 2002 until 2010, fired off a series of withering tweets, lambasting the peace process as an attempt to “cozy up to terrorists”. Then Andrés Pastrana, who ironically led a failed peace process in 1998, joined the fray, saying that Mr Santos had no mandate to seek peace. Further souring the mood, both former presidents attacked the person and family of Mr Santos. To outsiders, this can look odd as he served with a distinction in both Pastrana’s government (as finance minister) and Uribe’s (as defence minister). Either way, the attacks have fed growing pessimism that the peace talks will succeed. Many Colombians were anyway sceptical at the outset.
What is going on?
Internal Colombian politics explains much of the bickering. Uribe’s political machine is gearing up to field candidates in congressional and presidential elections next year, and on a popular platform that largely opposes preferential treatment for demobilized Farc guerillas.
The electoral calendar poses an additional problem too. Success in the peace talks would virtually ensure that Santos is re-elected in 2014. But if the talks drag on up to the elections, as they may, that could be perceived as a failure and so scupper Santos’ electoral chances. (His approval ratings, sky high only a year ago, have fallen below 50 per cent.) To secure an agreement, Santos might therefore make concessions to the Farc that he might not otherwise agree to if he had more time. This is the meat of Pastrana’s complaint.
Both ex-presidents raise valid points – but the manner in which they have done so has exasperated many. (Curious aside: for some reason it seems to be more acceptable to insult someone else over Twitter than in a written or public statement. Why?)
Uribe is right to wonder whether demobilised Farc guerillas, who have waged a half-century insurgency, should be given immunity if a peace accord is agreed. Yet this is a problematic feature of all peace talks, not just Colombia’s. In addition, the country’s right wing paramilitaries won partial immunity in a comparable peace deal that Uribe struck during his own presidency.
Pastrana is also correct to point out the risk that domestic political considerations could lead Santos to become a hostage of the peace talks. But that question can be turned on its head and re-cast in a more interesting way: what will happen to the peace talks if Santos doesn’t become president for a second term? There is no guarantee that the half-finished talks would continue.
Such considerations have been buried by the unseemly in-fighting of Bogota’s political elite, as El Espectador, a leading national newspaper, summed up in an Easter Sunday editorial.
“The bickering by these so-called patriots has displaced the real issues that should be driving the public agenda,” it thundered. “Colombian politicians shouldn’t indulge themselves in this way. It is time for them to stop and assume the responsibilities that their status demands. The country deserves no less.” War is hard but, as Colombia shows, making peace can be more difficult still.