The Way to Lay Down Arms is to Lay Down Arms
The current government of Juan Manuel Santos is playing the same game as the previous Colombian government: argue that demobilization is the same as peace and declare that war is the way to achieve peace. Oddly enough, Vice-President Angelino Garzón has said that the doors are open for dialogue only when the guerrillas decide that they are truly interested in peace. This, though, is not a contradiction in positions. What appears to be happening is a game of words that, in the end, does not imply any true government interest in peace negotiations. In fact, the statements by the government show that they actually desire a continuation of the war.
On September 23, one day after the death of FARC commander “Mono Jojoy,” President Juan Manuel Santos stated in New York that, “The time of terror is over; now it is time to cultivate peace, to cultivate prosperity.” With this ambiguous phrase, it would seem that Santos was hoping to show that the FARC’s time is up and that peace is on the way. Later on, in the same press conference, Santos made a call to all guerrilla combatants to demobilize and leave the war behind. He further stated that the government is going to hunt down the leaders of the FARC. This was not the first time that Colombia’s new president has said that the war will be total. A few days earlier, he stated, “We are not going to rest one second until we are able to destroy all terrorism!” Apparently, the time to cultivate peace will have to wait while the war continues.
The implication here is that there are two government strategies with regards to the armed conflict. The first is to urge the low-level guerrilla fighters to demobilize and the second is to kill high-ranking guerrilla commanders. It is a strategy designed to defeat the guerrillas militarily from the inside and outside. Yet it ignores any real possibility for peace since it begs the question: Who do you negotiate with if all the leaders are dead? The government believes, wrongly, that it is just a question of time until the FARC decide, due to military pressure, that they want to just demobilize.
At the same time, when the guerrillas decide that it is truly interested in talking about peace, the government will be ready with the doors open, according to Vice-President Garzón. But first the guerrillas have to decide that violence no longer makes sense in the Colombia of today because the government will not talk without the guerrillas first ceasing to engage in violence. But how will the government decide that the guerrillas are not using negotiations as a strategy for war? Well, when the guerrillas stop using violence, the government will know. The amazing inference here leads to an obvious problem: how does one get to this point given the strategy of the government as well as an analytical error by, at least, the FARC.
The FARC frequently commit an important error while looking at the current situation. They continue to believe in the classic idea of balance of forces. They think the more military power they show, the more they can get from negotiations. While this has often been true in conflicts around the world, this scenario is no longer relevant in Colombia. This creates a situation in which it is impossible for the guerrillas not to lose. First, exercising no violence with only the possibility of peace is too risky since the armed forces could take advantage and attack whenever deemed necessary, creating a huge military disadvantage for the guerrillas. The experience in the Casa Verde will remind the FARC of this possibility. Secondly, continuing to carry out attacks in order to show their military strength creates an incredibly hostile environment for any type of dialogue since the (mostly urban) population will support a military response by the government in such a situation.
Thus the highest hurdle appears. The condition implemented by the government that the guerrillas unilaterally cease using violence before it can enter into negotiations is unacceptable for any armed group in almost any armed conflict, lest the group believes it is on the brink of defeat, something that the FARC vehemently denies. And after all, the laying down of arms is a goal of negotiations, not a starting point! Even organizing a ceasefire requires some form of negotiation to implement. In the Colombian case, such a dialogue would have to be carried out through videos, letters and communiqués from each side. If the leaders of the FARC see the aforementioned statements by government officials, and they certainly do, they will have no reason to think that any proposal that they make regarding negotiations will have any effect on the government. Therefore, a shift in the government’s position would tip the balance towards a real chance at peace.
Both sides need more pragmatic ideas and proposals in order to move any possibility of peace forward. The government needs to change their conditions because it knows that the FARC will not accept them: ending the violence should be the end goal of negotiations. If the government proposed certain economic and social reforms to be discussed in peace talks that would place pressure on the guerrillas to enter into talks. But by declaring that violence will be used against the FARC until the guerrillas decide to no longer use violence, the government is echoing the sentiments of the FARC: that as long as the government continues to use violence then they have no option but to fight back. Ultimately, the inertia of war continues.
The government, with its recent military supremacy, could take advantage of the FARC’s perspective regarding the balance of forces and create a proposal for a ceasefire that would take the first step towards a serious peace agreement. The government could quickly recover any possible losses militarily were the process to fail. If the process succeeded, it would be able to take credit (rightly or wrongly) for creating an environment for peace.
However, for now, the strategy of both sides is to wage all-out war, not because either side can win (despite what the government may think), but because peace implies a risky strategic change. And even though both sides talk of peace and change, the FARC by proposing reforms and the government by proposing a Colombia without the FARC, in the end, it is change that scares them both, thereby hindering any chance for peace.