Patrick Romano is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’s unrelenting opposition to negotiating a bilateral ceasefire with left-wing guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) threatens to derail current peace talks and indefinitely perpetuate the longest conflict in the Western Hemisphere. Though the war began in 1964, over the past fifty years more than 220,000 Colombians—80 percent civilians—have lost their lives and more than five million have been displaced. The conflict has also fueled the illegal drug trade, as the FARC continues to fund itself through the production and trafficking of cocaine and heroin. Since negotiations between Santos and FARC leaders began in October 2012, the negotiators have reached agreements on three of five points: land reform, political participation, and illicit narcotics. The two remaining issues, the thorniest of all, deal with rights and reparations for the conflict’s victims and disarmament of the rebels. While this progress could be deemed a partial success, the escalation of violence since the FARC’s suspension of its unilateral ceasefire in May threatens to end the peace process altogether.
With declining popular support for a peace accord, the longer Santos waits to take action to de-escalate the conflict, the less likely a final peace agreement will be reached. On July 8, the FARC announced a new, one-month unilateral ceasefire, effective July 20, but this will be insufficient for reducing long-term instability for two reasons. First, even if the FARC upholds the ceasefire—its sixth since peace talks began—one month will not be enough time to reach an agreement on the remaining issues of victims’ rights and disarmament, as it has taken nearly three years to reach consensus on the other three points. Second, Santos’ July 12 announcement that his government would scale down military action to accelerate negotiations does not explicitly promise—as a formal bilateral ceasefire would—that the military will not attack FARC rebels or resources. Given that an agreement will likely not be reached within a month, the only strategic option left to FARC commanders is to plan for a resumption of hostilities. Thus, when the ceasefire expires, Colombia will (at best) remain unstable, protracting the risk to civilians and destruction of critical infrastructure.
A formal, written bilateral ceasefire—with a longer duration of four to six months and a potential to be renewed—will provide adequate time and stability to settle the remaining issues in the peace negotiations. To date, Santos has stated repeatedly that he will never agree to one, claiming that the FARC, who have ultimately suspended all previous ceasefires, will use the opportunity to regroup for new attacks. The Santos administration is also concerned that the FARC could continue to fundraise through drug trafficking and extortion. While both are legitimate dangers, an independent mediating body—perhaps led by the guarantors of the talks, Norway and Cuba—could assuage these concerns if given adequate time and access to monitor conflict areas and FARC strongholds in order to verify that both sides are upholding the ceasefire terms. A successful, unbroken bilateral ceasefire could also help alleviate disagreements over FARC disarmament, as FARC leaders may feel more secure that giving up their arms will not lead to their annihilation by Colombian forces.
The United States—Colombia’s most intrinsic ally in terms of monetary, military, and diplomatic support—appointed Bernard Aronson as special envoy to the peace talks. In a House hearing on June 24, Aronson stated that his role is to advise and counsel Santos, not to impose his opinion or publicly undermine Santos. However, without pushing his opinion forcefully or publicly, Aronson could present the conditions listed above to Santos, showing him the benefits of a bilateral ceasefire, including the significant progress in the peace process that it will demonstrate to his increasingly disengaged constituency and the extended time it will give negotiators. A failure to either de-escalate the conflict or accelerate negotiations would be an embarrassment for U.S. diplomacy, but is likely if Santos continues to rule out a bilateral ceasefire. The benefits of a longer ceasefire and negotiated settlement for U.S. security, economic, and political interests far outweigh the potential consequences of another failed ceasefire:
• Colombia is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in Latin America. The State Department ranks the FARC as one of the largest drug traffickers in the world, and through “Plan Colombia,” an aid initiative that began in the late 1990s, the United States has provided billions of dollars in aid to the Colombian government, mainly to combat the illicit drug trade. A ceasefire that stipulates—and independently verifies over time—that the guerrillas stop fundraising through the drug trade would be a significant return on the U.S. investment in Colombia and a way to reduce the $162 million in counter-narcotics aid planned for Colombia in 2016.
• U.S. reputation in Latin America has waned in the past two decades, but the U.S.-Colombia relationship remains one of the strongest, and bilateral trade has increased significantly since the signing of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement in 2012. This mutually beneficial relationship bolsters the U.S. reputation in a region where the influence of China and India is expanding. As Latin American economies continue to grow, it is important for U.S. trade interests to maintain a favorable reputation in the region, and destabilization due to the FARC conflict threatens the good example of the U.S.-Colombia partnership.
• The United States purports to promote human rights and the rule of law in the Americas, and defeating the FARC, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, is an important part of this agenda. However, progress was set back when Human Rights Watch recently alleged that the Colombian military killed innocent civilians and passed them off as guerrillas, and the top Colombian brass knew about it. Given the close U.S. partnership with the Colombian military, these human rights abuses risk conveying hypocrisy to other Latin American nations, such as Venezuela and Cuba, which the United States has condemned for similar issues of state violence.
If the United States wishes to see the payout from its investments in Colombia, Aronson should demonstrate the benefits of a long-term, bilateral ceasefire and negotiated settlement to Santos, and the consequences of failure, including a dissatisfied public. The longer it takes to establish a bilateral ceasefire, the less likely it is that a lasting peace will be reached.