This was supposed to be the home stretch for Colombian government negotiators and FARC rebel leaders working out the last few pesky details of their peace accord. After three years of plodding formal negotiations, they’d set March 23 as a deadline for a deal. President Obama wanted to be there for the signing ceremony.
Now hardly anyone thinks that will happen next month.
On Wednesday, intermediaries from the governments of Norway and Cuba managed to walk the two sides back from their latest crisis, and negotiations are set to resume in Havana once more.
But their most recent standoff has exposed how fragile the process remains. While many Colombians want peace with FARC, politics with FARC still remains tough for them to stomach.
That was made evident, once more, when several top FARC leaders staged what amounted to a six-hour political rally last Thursday in a small Colombian town near the Venezuela border, handing out fliers and speaking to hundreds from a stage. Television footage showed large numbers of heavily armed FARC troops in full uniforms milling about among the locals.
The Colombian government had granted FARC commanders safe passage to promote the peace deal among the ranks of their 7,000 or so guerrilla troops. But their event in the town of El Conejo—which looked a lot like armed retail politicking with Colombian civilians -- is prohibited by the government.
“The original rationale for these trips was reasonable. The FARC leaders can’t just live in Havana for years and make decisions that affect 7,000 combatants without bringing them along in the process,” Bernard Aronson, U.S. special envoy to the Colombia peace process, said in an interview.
“But this particular visit took on life of its own,” Aronson said, "and the government felt strongly that it violated the protocols that had been agreed upon in advance."
When the images of the event appeared on Colombian television and social media, the country’s military was furious. For President Juan Manuel Santos, who faces deep public skepticism about the negotiations, the scenes were even more embarrassing. It looked to many like opponents’ caricature of the process itself: an armed rebel takeover of Colombian territory.
Santos ordered the FARC leaders back to Havana. They refused. It took five days for intermediaries to bring them back from the brink.
The peace talks have traversed several rough patches before, including the abduction -- and subsequent release -- of a Colombian military general by guerrillas in 2014.
But the latest crisis has left new bruises, and the incident underscored the lingering gap between the way the government, the rebels and broad sectors of the Colombia public view the negotiations. “It became a microcosm of the different perceptions of what the peace process represents,” Aronson said.
"The most important thing is that the parties resolved the problem diplomatically," he said.
The government wants the guerrillas to make amends, recognize wrongdoing and help bring law and order to rural Colombia. But FARC views the process as a runway to electoral politics, and nothing like a capitulation. Many impoverished rural corners of Colombia, like El Conejo, where Thursday’s rally was held, are bastions of FARC support, if not incubators for FARC militancy.
Hence FARC leaders insisted they’d done nothing wrong by going to the town and extolling the peace process.
“Having FARC negotiators go to guerrilla encampments and explain the process to their fighters is a smart thing to do, since guerrilla command and control and rank-and-file buy-in are necessary to a successful demobilization,” said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
“However, that FARC leaders held a public event with armed guards, in violation of the ground rules, is puzzling,” he said.
“On the likely eve of the FARC forming a political movement, their political acumen remains very weak,” Isacson said.
“If the Conejo event was a calculated act of defiance, it’s absolutely unclear how they thought to gain from it. And if they really viewed it as a harmless political act, in order to ready themselves to be a political movement, then it was a huge miscalculation: did they not realize that people’s cellphones have cameras in them, and that the peace process’s opponents would make maximum use of those images?”
The major components of the peace deal have been mostly agreed upon, but the two sides need to work out the complex logistics of how and where the rebels will lay down their weapons and demobilize, among other issues. FARC leaders are also at odds with the government over the mechanism by which Colombian voters will approve or reject the peace deal. Santos wants a direct up or down vote; the rebels want to create a special assembly.
Few expect those sticking points to come loose during the next few weeks. The two sides could sign something on March 23, such as a cease-fire, which already exists de facto but has yet to be formalized.
But a more realistic date for a final peace agreement and signing ceremony, according to knowledgeable observers, would be closer to mid-June.
The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is the largest insurgent group in a multi-sided conflict that has left more than 220,000 dead over the past half-century. No previous attempt by the Colombian government to reach a peace accord with the rebels has come this far.