The tone of Colombia’s ongoing peace talks has never been so pessimistic. After seven months of negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Colombian government is struggling to find a way to politically reintegrate the once-formidable Marxist guerrilla group. Serious doubts have emerged about the real probability of a negotiated end to the 60-year internal conflict. Whereas before most of the differences between the government and rebel delegation seemed to be addressed behind closed doors, the increasing use of public pronouncements to pressure the opponent has brought to light the mounting difficulty of finding common ground.

Public support for the negotiations in Havana, Cuba, remains high nevertheless, with roughly three out of four Colombians backing the peace process. The majoritarian endorsement of President Juan Manuel Santos’ peace initiatives, however, has not corresponded with high optimism about the outcome of the conversations. This new surge in what is being labelled ‘microphone diplomacy’, with daring proposals from FARC, has brought back the ghost of failure from roughly a half-dozen unsuccessful negotiations in the 1980s and 1990s. Sobered by past failures and FARC’s well-earned reputation for perfidy, the Colombian public is hopeful but highly sceptical about reaching a peace deal.

The first preliminary agreements on the especially delicate issue of land reform were reached one month ago, and negotiators on both sides recently began to discuss FARC’s participation in the political process. This is a sore subject for many Colombians as, given FARC’s decades of pillage, they would prefer FARC leaders to be behind bars rather than, say, running for office or even governing the country. Back in April, even before this new tide of scepticism rose, almost 70% of Colombians opposed offering amnesty to FARC and allowing them to participate in the political process.

Former President Alvaro Uribe remains one of the most vocal and scathing critics of the peace process. Uribe has been especially critical of Santos, his successor and former defence minister, accusing him of naiveté vis-à-vis the Leninist (and, by definition, deeply duplicitous) rebel leadership.

Not surprisingly, then, announcements of political reform that would include FARC reintegration into politics have sparked a new wave of patriotism. And the redoubtable Uribe has certainly stoked the fire by claiming that the current government is conceding to FARC what the insurgent group never won on the battlefield – or in the court of public opinion.

The political reforms still unresolved, FARC has also pressed for deeper structural changes – such as alterations to the constitution and adoption of a socialist economic model – that are anathema to Bogota. Given that structural issues were not supposed to be on the table, these recent moves might simply be FARC’s way of pushing the issue before falling back to some sort of reinsertion into the existing political framework. Only as recently as 6 July did FARC yield by stating that its proposal on a constitutional assembly was not ‘immovable’. It remains to be seen how flexible rebel and government negotiators will actually be. The prospects of a successful peace process would otherwise be remote, and a future president would have an explicit mandate for war.

Whatever happened to the apparent pragmatism and restraint on both sides that had characterised the conversations until several weeks ago? FARC’s main new proposal, calling a Constituent Assembly that would draft a new constitution, has been strongly and repeatedly rejected by a Santos who knows this would be a setback for his campaign for re-election in 2014. If the talks collapse during the election, Santos will have the backup option of returning to his former hard-line position and telling the public that FARC never wanted peace.

The Santos administration appears to have set strict limits on the breadth of the negotiations and has constantly insisted on respecting the original parameters. FARC, however, has repeatedly attempted to expand the scope of negotiations with colossal proposals on state reform that challenge both public support for the process and the government’s willingness to continue negotiations.

Ironically, Uribe’s legions of strident supporters have also called for a constitutional assembly but, unlike FARC, whose broader goals is to transform the country into a Marxist paradise, they apparently want to pave the way for their beloved former president to govern for a third term.

Santos is eager to wrap up the negotiations by this autumn so that he can have the peace accords under his belt when he hits the campaign trail. Yet, and despite its remarkable security gains in recent years, this is still Colombia, so there are certain to be more surprises and setbacks as the country claws its way back to normalcy.

Russell Crandall is an Associate Professor of International Politics, Davidson College, Contributing Editor of Survival and the author of an article on the ‘war on drugs’ in Colombia in the October–November issue of Survival. He was Principal Director for the Western Hemisphere at the US Department of Defense in 2009 and Director for Andean Affairs at the US National Security Council in 2010–11.

Gustavo Orozco-Lince is a student at Davidson College.

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