On three separate occasions in the past 30 years the country’s largest guerrilla group and a succession of governments have sat down to peace talks, and failed.
Some experts argue that since Santos pulled back from the hard line of his predecessor, the political and military landscape now favors a peace deal. “In conflict resolution negotiations happen ... when a stalemate is viewed as mutual,” says Aldo Civico, an expert on the conflict at Rutgers University in New Jersey who has facilitated cease-fire talks with another Colombian guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, in the past. “Both sides are aware they won’t defeat their enemy militarily,” he says.
While Colombia is considered a rising economic power, its internal conflict holds it back, says Mr. Civico. Rebels have targeted key industries, with attacks on oil pipelines more than quadrupling in the first seven months of 2012, according to the Defense Ministry. Nearly 4 percent of gross domestic product went to military expenditures between 2007 and 2011; US defense aid is falling. Colombia needs to redirect its resources to closing the poverty gap, fighting urban violence, and luring foreign investment, says Civico.
Santos’s approval rating has plunged over the past year from 71 percent to 47 percent, in part because of security issues, according to Colombia’s Semana magazine. He aims to improve his standing as he enters the second half of his term, perhaps even trying to create a legacy as the “president of peace,” Civico says.
The FARC also has reasons to talk. After losing many top leaders, achieving its goals by force seems unlikely. “The peace process is an opportunity to increase the FARC’s political profile to remind everyone that they have political discourse behind the guerrilla [tactics],” Civico says.