peace negotiations

Colombia Govt, ELN Rebels Set Date to Start Formal Peace Talks

The government of Colombia and the country’s second-largest guerrilla group announced that they will soon begin formal peace negotiations, a new step in a long-delayed peace process that is sure to encounter many obstacles moving forward…

Read this piece in its entirety at InSight Crime.

Doubts Surround International Support for Colombia Peace Deal

A number of doubts are swirling around the amount of international assistance Colombia can expect to receive to support a historic peace agreement with the country’s main rebel group, raising questions about how funding issues could impact the implementation of the deal…

Read this piece in its entirety at InSight Crime.

Colombia Continues to Grapple with Expanding Coca Cultivation

The Colombian government is doubling down on efforts to contain the expanding cultivation of coca crops, underscoring some of the persistent difficulties associated with combating the country’s illicit drug trade…

Read this piece in its entirety at InSight Crime.

U.S. Names Special Envoy to Peace Process with Colombia’s FARC Rebels

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama named Bernie Aronson as a special envoy to the ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC rebel group. The move is perhaps the United States’ strongest signal of its support for the process since it began in 2012.

In a statement announcing Aronson’s appointment, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “After careful consideration, President Obama has come to the conclusion – which I share, needless to say – that first, while significant obstacles remain, a negotiated peace in Colombia is absolutely worth pursuing and absolutely worth assisting if we are able to; and second, as Colombia’s close friend and ally, the United States has a responsibility to do what it can in order to help Colombia to achieve that peace.”

For his part, Arnson said, “Peace can only be made by Colombians themselves. We have no blueprint made in Washington to offer. We will not take a place at the negotiating table, but we can push, prod, cajole, and clarify and help wherever we can. The parties have made substantial progress, but the hard, knotty issues have been left to the end as they usually are. Now the parties must resolve them, because windows for peace, as all of us know, can close without warning, and sometimes they never reopen.”

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos welcomed Aronson’s appointment, saying “We are grateful to President Obama and his government for this new gesture.” The FARC also welcomed Aronson’s appointment and reiterated its commitment to ending the conflict, in addition to thanking the U.S. for its moves toward fulfilling Santos’ December 2014 request for the country to take a “more direct role in the peace process.”

Secretary Kerry praised Aronson for “his well-recognized hard work in helping to resolve the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua.” However, as Mother Jones reported in October 1987, Aronson was among the so-called “Gang of Four” Democratic operatives who “sought to rally the party behind the Nicaraguan rebels” known as the Contras, who were fighting the ruling Sandinista government at the time.

As author Michael Massing wrote, “The four testified in Congress, lobbied the administration, wrote articles, and drafted speeches. They also worked with the contras themselves, seeking almost single-handedly to mold the rebel army.”

Aronson, who went on to become Latin America advisor at Goldman Sachs before starting his own Latin America-focused private equity firm, also served as assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs during the George H.W. Bush administration from 1989 to 1993. While Secretary Kerry praised Arnson for his work in El Salvador, the latter has his critics among foreign policy observers for the role he played in that conflict as well.

Aronson’s new appointment will test his public diplomacy skills. During the ceremony for his appointment Aronson also said, “Now it is time, long past time, for the FARC and hopefully the ELN to demonstrate their courage by renouncing violence forever so Colombians can heal the wounds of war and live in peace with justice under the law.” This was a curious and slightly concerning statement considering the Colombian government itself has confirmed that the indefinite and unilateral ceasefire declared by the FARC has held despite continued offensives by the Colombian military.

The U.S. government has labeled the FARC a “foreign terrorist organization” since 1997. For this reason, the Obama administration’s efforts to support the peace talks will likely face similar attacks as they have in Colombia.  Foreign Policy magazine once described the mantra “the United States doesn’t negotiate with terrorists” as a “constant refrain,” though it is one to which there is not much truth.

The U.S. (and Aronson) must walk the same “fine line” as the Colombian government. What I wrote previously about the Santos administration applies equally to Obama’s; “It must [engage in] the process with the FARC in good faith and frame both concessions and acquisitions in the negotiations in a positive light for the general public, while simultaneously countering alternative narratives about the talks from the FARC and the right-wing opposition.”

In another sign of support for the peace process, U.S. ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker, suggested in a recent media interview that the Obama administration could request an increase in aid funding for Colombia to support post-conflict initiatives in the event of a final peace accord.

Despite the efforts of some right-wing elements to derail or discredit the peace process, it seems to be on fairly firm footing – in both the U.S. and Colombia. While some observers have reservations about Aronson, his appointment nonetheless signals the Obama administration’s firm commitment to helping Santos achieve the “bilateral and indefinite” ceasefire with the rebels that he has called for repeatedly and urgently.

Colombian Government Trying to Buy Support for Peace Talks?

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

Recent revelations about Colombian taxpayers’ money being spent on publicity for the country’s ongoing peace talks with the FARC guerrilla group have raised questions about whether the government is trying to buy support for the slow-moving and controversial negotiations.

According to Latin Correspondent, “David Barguil, the president of the Conservative Party, shared a document on Twitter [last week] that appeared to show a government contract worth 480 million pesos (about US $200,000) awarded to an NGO called Corpovisionarios. The contract was for ‘creating a citizen mobilization that promotes societal support for the conversations being carried out between the government and the FARC in Havana and thus strengthening the faith and willingness of civil society to affirm that peace is a collective construction that applies to everyone.'”

“Right-wing politicians and Uribistas — supporters of hard-line former president Álvaro Uribe, who has been quite vocal in his opposition to the dialogues  — have seized on the document as proof of government corruption in the dialogue process and accused the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos of needing to pay to appear to have popular support,” writes author Natalie Southwick.

Uribe also accused the government of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to a private media company owned by Santos’ nephew for “services for the realization of pedagogical activities that allow the generation of spaces of reflection and regional discussion about building peace in Colombia” as well as hundreds of thousands more for the “transmission of advertising, special mentions and other forms of communication of the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace” to another media company.

Yet Adriaan Alsema at Colombia Reports notes that the vast majority of the government’s spending on public diplomacy is not aimed at promoting the peace process. Additionally, the sums of money spent on media promotion, including those related to the peace negotiations, are relatively tiny compared to the overall revenues of the large media corporations to which they were made. As Alsema writes, “the $1.3 million spent on for example RCN TV is not close to one percent of the approximately $300 million made by the Colombian television giant that year.”

Nevertheless, this will not stop Uribe from claiming, as he has, that the government is trying to buy support for its policies. Whatever one thinks about the ethics of government money going to a media outlet owned by a close relative of the president, it certainly does not appear that the Colombian government needs to pay for public support of the talks.

As I mentioned last week, some 70 percent of Colombian citizens support a peaceful resolution to the conflict with the FARC. Thus, contrary to the suggestions of the Uribistas, the comparatively small amounts of money spent on promoting the peace talks reflect the Santos government’s confidence in public opinion, not its lack thereof.

If the government thought Colombian citizens wanted an all-out military assault on the FARC, it’s not unlikely the government would follow that policy. In fact, that is exactly what Santos did when he served as Defense Minister under then-president Uribe from 2006 to 2009. The campaign crippled the FARC, who have demonstrated a genuine desire to find a peaceful settlement to the fifty-year old conflict.

Having won re-election largely based on his support for the peace talks, Santos does not feel a need to bring the Colombian or international public on board with the talks. Rather, he is concerned with convincing constituencies with opposition to or reservations about the final outcome of the process. And there is some evidence he may be succeeding. Last week a group of retired military servicemen who had previously supported Uribista presidential candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga announced they would put their weight behind the peace process.

This latest twist in a long-running saga may ultimately have little effect on the final outcome of the negotiations, but it nevertheless remains an insightful example of the public diplomacy strategies on display throughout the process.

Colombia: Is War Really More Popular than Peace?

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

In an interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine last spring, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos lamented that his “rivals have been quite effective in sowing the seeds of skepticism around the peace process” that is currently underway between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels. “Waging war is much more popular than negotiating,” Santos said. 

However, according to a recent survey, only 28 percent of Colombians believe that the best solution to the conflict lies in a purely military defeat of the rebels. The rest believe the end of the conflict should come through a negotiated resolution (41 percent) or a unilateral disarmament by the FARC (30 percent). Despite the relative lack of support for the former option, these hard-liners played a prominent role in Colombia’s most recent presidential election, nearly costing the incumbent Juan Manuel Santos a second term in office.

Former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe, along with his right-wing Democratic Center (CD) party colleagues, have been among the most outspoken opponents of the peace process, viewing it as a negotiation with terrorists. In addition, they have long claimed that they are victims of political persecution by the moderate ruling government, and have implied that the peace process is an underhanded effort to bring the far-left FARC members into the mainstream political sphere in order to increase the representation of leftists in congress.

Adding weight to (and at the same time casting doubt upon) their claims is the fact that the former head of the country’s intelligence service under Uribe has been charged with spying on Uribe’s political opponents while he was president, and Uribe himself is being investigated for his connection to a mass murder carried out by paramilitaries in Antioquia in 1997 while he was governor of that state.

However, Uribe has another problem. Almost everybody except he and his cohort support the peace process. The UN, the OAS, the U.S., the pope, and the vast majority of Colombia’s citizens support a definitive end to the half-century old conflict. The major sticking point is not the negotiations themselves, but rather the structure of the final agreement that they could bring about.

Uribe, whose father was killed by the FARC in a botched kidnapping attempt in 1983, has been making his case against the peace talks to the Colombian and international public for years. But despite his status as former head of state, a current senator and one of the country’s most popular political figures – not to mention his 3.5 million Twitter followers – Uribe’s anti-peace message has by all appearances failed to persuade anyone who didn’t already agree with his stance.

As I mentioned in my first post on this blog, “Good policies are easily sold. On the other hand, selling bad policies or ameliorating the damage they cause to diplomatic relations, seems to be the main concern of public diplomacy.”

Uribe’s public diplomacy campaign against the peace negotiations isn’t exactly well-thought out – in fact, it seems to be largely in the service of his own political career and those of his allies – but when compared with the Santos government’s similarly weak and discombobulated messaging about the talks, it points to my earlier conclusion that good policies (like the peace talks) almost sell themselves.

Uribe and a gaggle of CD politicians are currently attempting to travel to the U.S. and meet with American officials to make their case, but if Uribe hopes to derail the peace talks and plunge the country into what President Santos predicted could be “another 20, 30 or 40 years of war,” he’ll have to seriously step up his public diplomacy game at home first.