Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Will Colombia's Peace Talk Crisis End in a Ceasefire?

Colombia’s peace negotiations are marking their two-year anniversary this week in the midst of a major crisis. While the FARC rebels are holding their cards close to their vest ahead of a planned press conference later this morning, figures on the country’s left are using the incident to fuel the insurgents’ calls for a bilateral ceasefire.  

Last night, President Juan Manuel Santos issued a stern address in which he called on the rebels to hand over their captives so talks could resume. El Espectador reports that in a nationally televised speech, Santos demanded that the FARC release General Ruben Dario Alzate and his two companions (a captain and an army lawyer), as well as two soldiers taken prisoner earlier this month following a separate clash in Arauca province.  

“We must be clear: although we are negotiating in the middle of a conflict, the FARC have to understand that peace does not come from ramping up violent actions and undermining confidence,” he said.

Santos’ statement came after the FARC peace negotiators in Havana signaled that they would hold a press conference on the general’s kidnapping today at 9am EST. Interestingly, newspaper El Tiempo has reported that the head of the FARC’s 34th Front (which was responsible for taking Alzate captive) is a member of the negotiating team, which should help assuage fears of a “rogue FARC unit,” or that the rebel leadership in Havana is unfit to guarantee the general’s safety.

The president’s remarks illustrate the difficulty posed by carrying out the peace talks in the midst of hostilities. So far the Colombian government has refused to concede on this point, even as the FARC have repeatedly called for a bilateral ceasefire and implemented several short-term unilateral ceasefires in gestures of good will.

Yet this position has come at a cost for the government.  As journalist Miguel Angel Bastenier notes, the FARC may have been within their right to take General Alzate captive, as the terms of the negotiations state that nothing is settled until a final agreement is reached. Of course, the gesture does not exactly inspire confidence in the rebels’ commitment to peace either.  In a column for El Pais, security expert Juan Carlos Garzon Vergara points out the paradox of the FARC’s position in arguing for a bilateral ceasefire by non-compliance with a promise to give up so-called “retentions.”

With the issue of ongoing hostilities in focus, some in Colombia are capitalizing on the moment to call for both sides to initiate a ceasefire. La FM Radio reports that social movement leader Piedad Cordoba held a press conference yesterday to pressure both the government and rebels to suspend hostilities during the holiday season. The ex-senator has since taken her pleas to social media, where they have been echoed by users of the hashtag #TreguaYA (“truce now”), as well as leading left-wing figures like the president of the Polo Democratico Party, Clara Lopez Obregon.

This push has gained some attention in international press. Today’s New York Times features an editorial noting that many Colombians are “demanding a more sensible response by calling for an immediate cease-fire by both sides,” and The Economist points out that the Colombian left has “echoed FARC’s demands for a ceasefire,” while the kidnapping of the general “has raised the volume.”

Meanwhile, there is reason to be skeptical that a ceasefire could aid the Colombian peace process. One of the primary fears of the government has been that rebels would use a ceasefire to regroup and reorganize militarily. And in an analysis of seven peace processes around the world, news site La Silla Vacia notes that negotiating after a ceasefire has generally only worked when both sides are nearing a final peace deal, which may not apply in the Colombian case.

News Briefs
  • The kidnapping of the Colombian general has fueled a wave of speculation over the circumstances behind his apparent breach of military protocol, in which he visited a remote community in his area of command while dressed as a civilian and accompanied by only a minimal security detail. Recent reporting on the murky details of his capture has fueled this trend. El Espectador cites a source who claims that the general may have been conducting secret negotiations with the FARC’s 34th Front “for something like a demobilization.” El Colombiano, citing interviews with local townspeople, claims that the general’s alleged captors were unarmed.
  • Just as the Guatemalan Constitutional Court is preparing to rule on the legitimacy of recent judicial nominations, the UN-backed  International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)  has announced an invitation for officials and civil society to work together to establish an agenda for judicial reform in the country, El Periodico reports.
  • The heads of Brazilian state-owned oil giant Petrobras have issued their first statement on the company’s ongoing corruption scandal since a former executive was arrested on Friday. As The Wall Street Journal and O Globo report, Petrobras leaders told journalists they had hired legal consultants to look into allegations of money laundering, and would establish a new compliance division moving forward.
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has made headlines for making rare public remarks last week about the torture she suffered at the hands of the Pinochet regime. Speaking on TV network Chilevision, the president said she was “mainly tortured psychologically, and [suffered] some beating,” but acknowledged that she was luckier than the hundreds who were killed by security forces.
  • The Washington Post has the latest on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s unwillingness to adopt austerity measures that financial analysts say are necessary but could hit his already low approval rating in the country.
  • Spanish news agency EFE reports that Maduro’s decree powers, which were granted to him by a legislative majiroty last year following some vote-wrangling, are set to expire. While Maduro has taken advantage of his last few days of expanded power to sign a number of decrees to fight what he refers to as “economic war” against elites, he will have a harder time enacting such measures after his powers expire tomorrow.
  • BBC Mundo has an exclusive interview with Raul Mijango, a former congressman who helped negotiate the failed ceasefire between El Salvador’s Barrio 18 and MS-13 street gangs.  Mijango is defensive about the truce and its temporary reduction of homicides, and claims that the gangs’ agreement to create “peace zones” is working in nine municipalities despite reports of ongoing extortion.