Could Colombia's Election Kill Its Peace Process?

Oscar Iván Zuluaga has vowed to axe talks with the FARC if he wins. But can he really follow through?

Colombia's presidential campaign is in its final days before run-off elections on Sunday, June 15, and as the contest winds down, it has become clear that the fate of the two peace processes that have been spearheaded by President Juan Manuel Santos hang in the balance. An election marked in an earlier phase by dirty politicking and mudslinging -- with mutual accusations over narco-financing and wiretapping (complete with authenticated audiovisuals of efforts by challenger Oscar Iván Zuluaga's campaign to undermine the peace process) -- has suddenly blossomed into a debate about more substantive issues, including peace. And now each candidate is jockeying to play the peace card to his advantage.

Formal talks have been underway with the hemisphere's oldest guerrilla group -- the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) since late 2012. The peace process, which has been advancing steadily since Santos came into office in August 2012, may well be his most significant, if incomplete, accomplishment. And it has continued even against the specter of its unceremonious end. On June 10, Santos announced that secret meetings with the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) have lead to the initiation of long-awaited exploratory talks for the "common purpose of ending the conflict and building a country in peace and equity."

The threat of the election derailing the slow, but so far promising, peace effort is real. Zuluaga, who has taken a hard stance against the talks, won handily in the first round, with 29.3 percent of the vote to Santos's 25.7 percent -- the three other candidates were eliminated. An unprecedented 59.9 percent of eligible voters boycotted the polls -- a sign of what the regional hemispheric democracy-promoting Organization of American States electoral observation mission report called "a sign of citizens' serious disenchantment with the political system." But even if Zuluaga wins, there is reason to think that the promise of finding peace might not be lost.

On May 26, the morning after the first-round votes were tallied, a newly emboldened Zuluaga -- an avowed disciple of ex-President Alvaro Uribe, who oversaw the renewed militarization of Colombia following the failed peace process a decade ago -- announced that as soon as he was inaugurated on Aug. 7, he would decree a "provisional suspension of the talks in Havana." For them to continue, he said, the FARC would have to "cease all criminal actions" and agree to a "verifiable and permanent cease-fire" before talks would resume. He also insisted that some FARC leaders would have to serve jail time, a condition that FARC has always refused and that is considered by many a deal breaker. Zuluaga, like Uribe, has now reaffirmed his view that in Colombia there is no armed conflict, only a terrorist threat.

The peace process, however, has become a much more visible issue than it was in the first round. Santos's campaign had resisted adopting a slogan on peace, seeking to insulate the peace process as much as possible from electoral politics. But the hard line that Zuluaga has drawn has brought it into the fore of Santos' pitch. "Neither history nor the new generations would forgive us" if we fail to bring the peace process to fruition, Santos said on May 28. His allies -- including a newly launched Broad Front for Peace that unites most of the left, and the five major labor confederations -- have recently presented the election as a referendum on war and peace, even while maintaining distance from the social and economic agenda they've frequently clashed over. Many, it seems, fear a return to the days of Uribe, when speaking about peace and a political solution earned them persecution and stigmatization as guerrilla sympathizers. The left is giving its all to ensure a Santos win.

Colombia's last peace effort with the FARC, under President Andrés Pastrana, broke down 10 years ago and left the public highly disillusioned. This, the fourth attempt, has been marred by a weak communications strategy that has created a wide rift between the negotiators in Havana and the Colombian citizenry.

Although the delegations in Havana have taken some flak for moving too slowly compared to other peace processes, they have been advancing at a steady, reasonable clip for almost two years. No one has stood up from the table and the parties have completed 26 rounds in Havana and reached agreements on three of the five major issues driving the the conflict: agrarian reforms, political participation, and illicit crops and drug trafficking. The remaining issues -- victims and the terms for ending the conflict -- are slotted to be addressed when the parties reconvene following the elections.

On June 7, the delegations in Havana issued a ground-breaking joint declaration of principles for addressing the rights of victims to truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition. The declaration promised that there would be no impunity for crimes committed and that victims will be at the center of the process in determining the measures for satisfying their rights.

With 220,000 dead, six million displaced Colombians , and an average of 14,000 new displacements per month, according to the United Nations, satisfaction of victims' rights will be a daunting task. The newly agreed principles should help the parties move through the remaining substantive issues on the agenda before they turn to the question of how an agreement would be ratified by the public and implemented in the territories.

As Santos solidifies his defense of the peace process, Zuluaga has deftly sought to sidestep the confrontation on peace and avoid being cast as the war villain. Forty-eight hours after he called for the suspension of the peace talks, on Thursday, May 28, Zuluaga modified his position. The move, which Santos called "cynical" and "electorally driven," was part of Zuluaga's effort to woo Conservative Party candidate Marta Lucía Ramírez and the two million voters who supported her presidential candidacy in the first round.

In a programmatic pact between Ramírez's Conservative Party and Zuluaga's Democratic Center, Zuluaga pledged that his government would "continue talking with the FARC in Havana, but would lay out a series of "conditions and deadlines that guarantee tangible, definitive, verifiable advances with international accompaniment." The pact calls for an immediate public evaluation of the first three agreements that have been reached in Havana and a series of "gestures for peace" from the FARC: the immediate end of child recruitment, the use of land mines, "terrorist attacks against the population," war crimes, and attacks against infrastructure. For the talks to proceed, these measures would have to be completed within Zuluaga's first month in office. Then the parties at the table would be required to meet a government-set deadline for completing the negotiations.

Ironically, many of the Zuluaga camp's demands address the humanitarian concerns of the broader Colombian populace and these issues are already on the peace delegations' agenda. As part of the confidence-building gestures in 2013, the FARC announced its decision to refrain from kidnapping and the statistics on this practice have come way down. In the recent joint agreement on drugs, the FARC have also promised their support to the government to assist with the de-mining and crop eradication, among other things.

Still, the two camps have vastly different approaches to the peace process that dictate different measures for the conflict's resolution. What Zuluaga calls terrorist acts, Santos understands as acts of war in the context of an internal armed conflict. The former demands strong militarized responses and the latter a political solution. Santos has accompanied the peace talks with an accelerated military strategy that has struck down dozens of FARC leaders, including members of their Secretariat.

The candidates also favor different negotiating strategies. Zuluaga is insisting on a series of pre-conditions that ex-President Ernesto Samper has called "unfillable." Years of efforts to attain peace by setting pre-conditions through the "microphones" -- i.e. making unilateral demands in the press -- have not proven to be successful in Colombia and could well preclude ever getting back to the table. Santos has had more success in getting concessions once the parties were at the table. Likewise, Santos has favored a protected, insulated process that would submit the results to public scrutiny once the accords are finalized. Zuluaga and others charge that the process lacks adequate transparency and has promised to subject all agreements immediately to public scrutiny.

Lastly, the Santos and Zuluaga campaigns have different understandings of the nature of a peace table. For a peace process to work, the parties must come to the table as equals. Although the FARC has been hard hit in recent years under both Uribe and Santos, it has not been defeated. With both the government and the FARC acknowledging that neither side can win the war militarily, the parties in Havana have been negotiating from a position of equals at the table -- considered to be the only way that peace negotiations can be successful. With a military stalemate, the FARC and its constituencies are not likely to accept an approach that forces it into submission and does not respect the principle of equality at the table.

The history of Colombian peace processes in the last three decades shows that with each new president comes a new approach to the war, with the pendulum swinging between peace and war. On Sunday, June 8, in an interview with El Tiempo, Zuluaga was asked if he would respect the agreements reached in Havana thus far. Zuluaga responded that he felt no obligation to comply with them, though he would review them. "There is a principle that the president  repeats every day," he said. "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Here there is nothing."

It takes time to nurture a common vision for the country and to generate a climate of mutual respect in a negotiating process. Without these things, a peace accord has little chance. It would be a travesty if all of the work in Havana comes to naught.

What is clear is that while this Sunday's election may be a referendum on the peace process, it will not necessarily be a referendum on peace. We don't know how much of the population will be voting based on the issue of war and peace. Polls consistently show that other issues -- unemployment, urban crime, health care, poverty, and education -- are more likely to drive votes. Nonetheless, polls also show a majority of Colombians favor a peaceful settlement. The public is tired of war, particularly in the rural border zones where violence is worst. In those areas, Santos prevailed in the first round.

The Colombian peace process enjoys broad international support and accompaniment from Norway, Cuba, Venezuela, and Chile. The just-announced process with the ELN would have the added support of Ecuador and Brazil. The international community, which has encouraged peace as the best path forward and as critical to economic growth, regional stability, and international security, should be clear in its message. The time for peace is now, regardless of the outcome of the elections.



The Hillary Paradox

How the former secretary of state pulls off being softer than soft and harder than hard.

It's Hillary Week! The former secretary of state/senator/first lady has published a memoir with the startling title Hard Choices. (See Time's "Political Memoir Title Generator" for your very own clichéd memoir title.) Clinton has presided over a book signing, where crews from Fox trawled for fresh material to renew an old hate affair. She has played Q&A patty-cake at the Council on Foreign Relations. And she has offered pundits (like me) a one-week timeout from real-life calamities in order to reassess her legacy.

First out of the box was the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, who argued that Clinton "vastly expanded the diplomatic agenda" to include women's issues and economic development as well as "government-to-people relations and people-to-people ties." Clinton herself often said that such "soft" issues matter because they advance America's "hard" interests.

Well, no doubt they do, and American diplomats have increasingly accepted them as part of their job. But they are a modest part. Clinton's jawboning on women's rights may have given heart to Afghan women, as she says it did; but if the Afghanistan the United States is now leaving behind cannot defend itself from the misogynistic Taliban, then who really cares? The policy trumps the rhetoric -- a lesson that President Barack Obama has had to learn as well. If Clinton matters because she expanded the agenda, then she didn't matter all that much.

Perhaps, however, she matters for other reasons. Clinton herself must think so, because Hard Choices has been constructed with an eye to re-branding. The first 500 pages recount the principal crises of her tenure; the soft stuff is relegated to the back. What's more, Clinton begins with Asia, which allows her to begin with the "pivot" of which she was the prime mover, and then to tell the story of how she rescued the blind dissident Chen Guangcheng without fatally damaging the "strategic dialogue" with China that she had put in motion. Henry Kissinger could not have carried out this balancing act more deftly than Clinton did -- and he probably would have thrown Chen to the wolves.

The Hillary Clinton whom Hillary Clinton wishes the reader, and perhaps the future voter, to see is clear-eyed, tough-minded, unambiguous about national interests -- more Sandy Berger than Tony Lake, more Zbigniew Brzezinski than Cy Vance. In her own recounting, she often distinguishes herself from an unspecified "those" who fall prey to illusions about the likes of Vladimir Putin. She tells the reader that when she stepped down she left behind a memo advising President Barack Obama to hit the "pause button" on Russia -- this, of course, was long before Putin sent troops into Crimea.

This conscientious re-positioning takes its place in the ever-evolving Hillary portrait gallery with which Americans have lived for the last two decades. The figure we see before us has elements of both "It Takes a Village Hillary" and "Don't Cross Me Hillary" -- both softer than the soft and harder than the hard. Is that a contradiction? Not, somehow, in her.

I found the single most telling passage in Hard Choices to be Clinton's discussion of the tumultuous days when crowds in Tahrir Square called for Egypt's then-President Hosni Mubarak to step down. The former '60s activist who told her Wellesley graduating class to seek the possibility of "ecstatic experience" now sought to arrange a soft landing for an aging autocrat. She faced off against, in effect, earlier versions of herself. "Like many other young people around the world," she writes, "some of President Obama's aides in the White House were swept up in the drama and idealism of the moment." The idealists pressed Obama to side openly with the protestors. But Clinton and other elders cautioned Obama against "pushing a longtime partner out the door." The youngsters won that round. Clinton writes that when she met later that year with student leaders in Cairo, she found them naive and feckless. In her remarks at the Council, Clinton said that she had been "appalled" and even got into a "shouting match" with the young heroes of Tahrir Square. 

Clinton might not have been bragging about her smackdown if things hadn't gone spectacularly wrong in Egypt. But they have, and Obama's decision to call on Mubarak to step down immediately now looks rash. Those of us who thought that denting our relationships with Middle East allies was a small price to pay in exchange for getting on the right side of history need to reflect that history didn't go the way we hoped. Events have vindicated Clinton's sense of caution.

Clinton was more often criticized during her tenure for being too hard than for being too soft -- for giving short shrift to human rights in China and democracy promotion around the world. She pushes back against that impression, though not altogether persuasively. She is more convincing when insisting that her judgments were sound. She saw through Putin, she had no illusions about the realities of the Arab Spring, and she rightly feared that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would react badly to demands for a settlement freeze. She was adroit on China and on Iran, where she played a central role in marshaling reluctant states to vote for U.N. sanctions in 2010. And when she endorsed military action for humanitarian ends, history also proved her right -- in Libya, where it worked, and in Syria, where the president ignored her advice to train and arm moderate rebels, and now the place has descended into Hell.

That, of course, is what memoirs are for; they all carry the implicit subtitle, "I Was Right." But Hillary Clinton has not just a past but a future, and it certainly wouldn't hurt her cause if readers left feeling not only that she had been a better secretary of state than they thought but that she might have been a better president than the president has been (though her tone towards Obama is never less than perfectly respectful). He had a grandiose vision, but she had fine-grained knowledge. He was an inspired amateur, she a tough pro.

Is it so? I'm certainly more prepared to believe it now than I would have been a few years ago, when the world seemed less grim. But we should keep in mind what is not in Hard Choices as well as what is. Clinton gives the impression that she was deeply engaged with Israel-Palestine negotiations, but in fact she left the serious work to her envoy, George Mitchell, until September 2010, after which the process collapsed. She did not play the leading role on Afghanistan. Her envoy, Richard Holbrooke, favored a diplomatic surge rather than a military one. She disagreed, and sided with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his generals. Clinton seemed unwilling to question their logic, as Vice President Joe Biden fearlessly did. Neither Biden nor Holbrooke's plan would have preserved the gains that Afghan women have made, but they still might have either minimized American losses or led to a negotiated solution.

I don't see where a President Clinton would have made substantively different decisions on large-scale issues than her boss did over the last six years. Obama has been a generally, and increasingly, risk-averse foreign policy leader; his new mantra is, "Don't do stupid stuff." In Hillary Clinton he had a largely risk-averse secretary of state. (John Kerry has a much keener appetite than either for the diplomatic high wire.) But while Obama's visionary rhetoric set up expectations that he was bound to disappoint -- think of the 2009 Cairo speech -- Clinton's very earthbound habits of thought and language might have better matched America's will and resources to its goals. She might have done less damage to her own credibility than Obama has.

Obama defeated Clinton in 2008 because he was seen as the breakthrough candidate, and she the status quo. Hard Choices will not make the reader think otherwise. It is, however, a measure of our collective loss of faith about America's capacity to shape a better world that this now seems like an advantage for Clinton rather than for Obama.