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Colombia peace talks survive Cauca storm, but danger lurks

© Luis Robayo, AFP |Colombians protest outside an army barracks after the killing of 11 soldiers by rebels on April 14 in the rural Cauca province

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2015-04-21

Colombia’s government and the FARC guerrilla movement have vowed to push ahead with peace talks despite an attack that killed 11 soldiers threatened to unravel more than two years of negotiations, but experts warned more danger lies ahead.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced on April 20 they would maintain the unilateral ceasefire they initiated in December, saying the peace talks held in Havana could not be broken off for any reason.

The government of President Juan Manuel Santos declared itself committed to the negotiations as well, but accused the rebels of breaking their own truce and of dangerously escalating the conflict.

The April 14 clash in the remote Cauca province also killed two guerrillas and wounded 17 army soldiers, prompting Santos to renew bombing campaigns against FARC camps that he suspended in March.

Both ordinary Colombians and experts of the 50-year-old armed conflict were left baffled by the incident in Cauca, which the FARC called a legitimate case of self-defence, but whose unbalanced death toll suggested the army patrol was ambushed.

The attack all but erased the possibility of a full, bilateral ceasefire in the Andean country in the near future, but government representatives in Havana said they were determined to negotiate the end of a war that has killed an estimated 200,000 people and displaced five million more.

“Dialogue is the instrument that can end this war in the least painful, least drawn-out and, above all, the strongest and most lasting manner,” chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle told reporters in Havana on Monday. “Ending the war is more imperative now than ever.”

While the worst scenario appears to have been avoided, the latest hurdle in Colombia’s road to peace helped highlight the achievements of the peace process as well as the likely threats it still faces.

Process has ‘matured’

According to Andrei Gomez-Suarez, a lecturer at Los Andes University in Bogota and a researcher at the University of Sussex, the relatively quick resolution to the Cauca crisis showed that the peace process is “more mature” than it was just a few months ago.

Gomez-Suarez noted that the kidnapping of General Ruben Alzate in November 2014 prompted the government to suspend talks until rebels released him two weeks later, while the Cauca incident failed to halt talks.

“The two parties have succeeded in reaching some important agreements, even laying down some of the infrastructure for lasting peace. It’s clear that it is more difficult now for the peace process to suddenly fall apart,” the Colombian scholar told FRANCE 24.

The key to successful peace talks, in the case of Colombia as anywhere else, is to change and improve people’s daily existence, said Cynthia Arnson, Director of the Latin American Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center.

Arnson said the joint army-FARC project to identify and clear land mines was an example of this kind of effective peace, and another sign that the process was robust.

“The demining initiative was a very big breakthrough because it makes a huge difference in the safety of military personnel and civilians,” Arnson said, also praising Santos’ government for showing the Colombian public that even if talks have been long, they still have momentum.

Opponents lurk

While the peace process has rallied wide support at home and abroad, it also has staunch detractors, who Gomez-Suarez said were also working hard to discredit Santos and derail talks.

In the days following the attack in Cauca, the researcher received mobile phone messages that contained gruesome pictures of some of the government soldiers who had been shot dead. The message blamed Santos directly for the killing, encouraging recipients to share the pictures and information with others via phones and social media.

Gomez-Suarez said the photos came from right-wing opponents of the government, who have blasted the president for allegedly conceding too much to rebels already crushed militarily.

He said the swift mobile message campaign served as a reminder that there were well-organised forces conspiring against the negotiations in Havana, eager to exploit incidents like last week’s attack. “They are doing whatever they can to discredit the peace talks,” he said.

Cannot risk Cauca repeats

While government and rebel negotiators face off in the two final items remaining on the peace agenda, they are also engaged in a parallel and common struggle to win public support at home. Experts said the Cauca crisis has hurt the FARC’s credibility, but also demonstrated that the key battle for Colombian hearts can still be lost.

“Opinion polls have shown there is a high level of support for the peace process among Colombians, but also great scepticism among the public that FARC will live up to an eventual deal,” the Wilson Center’s Arnson told FRANCE 24. She said the surprising assault had also revived long-standing debates on the FARC’s level of command and control over fighters in the bush.

Gomez-Suarez said the unilateral ceasefire made for a confusing situation on the ground and he did not exclude more deadly confrontations in the weeks ahead. He said an intensification of the violence remained the single biggest threat to talks, not because it would sway the parties sitting around the peace table but because it could sway the Colombian public.

Gomez-Suarez said further tragedies pinned by the mainstream media on the FARC would play into the hands of those arguing for a military solution to the conflict. He said: “an intensification of the conflict could turn public opinion against the peace process, and make it very difficult for Santos to continue supporting it”.

Date created : 2015-04-21

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