Colombia Update: Facing Public Opinion on FARC Peace Talks

By Holly K. Sonneland

On the eve of a July 20 ceasefire, surveys show the Colombian public warily eyeing the peace process.

On July 20, a cautious clock in Colombia will start ticking. That is the day that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, agreed to begin a one-month unilateral ceasefire, and the government to a deescalation of its military offensives against the rebels—provided the FARC hold to their end of the deal. The agreement is the first significant step forward in getting a ceasefire back on track since the previous one broke down in April after FARC rebels attacked and killed a group of Colombian soldiers. At the time, President Juan Manuel Santos resumed air strikes against the rebels, leaving dozens of fatalities, including two who had participated in the peace talks.

But 32 months into the peace talks, which began in November 2012, the Colombian public is not rushing to celebrate this latest agreement: support for the peace process reached its lowest ever at 45 percent at the end of June, per a Gallup poll. “There is an understandable exhaustion of public opinion,” academic Andrés Molano told El Tiempo. Santos, well aware of the public fatigue, said on July 12 that in November (which will mark three years after the talks began) he would make a decision as to whether to continue with them at all.

Majority Support and Majority Skepticism

Support for negotiating with the guerillas was higher between 2003 and 2008—when there were no peace talks but instead some successful military offensives under then-President Álvaro Uribe. Since the peace talks began, support has been up and down after a dizzying number of steps forward and back, and agreements and ceasefires made and broken. And even though Colombians tend to support peace talks overall, they are, in nearly equal proportions, skeptical that these negotiations will lead to a definitive end to the conflict.

Since Santos’ 2010 inauguration, support for a negotiated solution over a military attack crept up steadily, hitting its highest level of 70 percent support in the summer of 2014. The optimism carried through to 2015: in February, 72 percent of Colombians supported the government’s decision to initiate peace talks with the FARC, a 10 percent boost since December 2014 when the government and the FARC announced—and were holding to—an unprecedented bilateral ceasefire.

But after the FARC’s April ambush of soldiers, public support for a negotiated solution plummeted, dropping 17 points from two months prior. The percentage of Colombians who believed the talks would yield an agreement also dropped below 50 percent in the same period, and Santos’ approval rating fell to 29 percent while his disapproval numbers hit 64 percent. In June—for the first time in over a decade—more Colombians thought a military offensive would be more effective than negotiations (46 and 45 percent, respectively).

Conflict Zone Residents More Open to Peace, but All Want Justice

Explainer: Colombia's Reintegration Challenge

But there are variations within the population. Colombians who live in conflict zones tend to be more supportive of the peace process than the national average by about five points (59 percent compared to 54 percent support in 2013). They’re also more supportive of their children being friends with a demobilized FARC member by a seven-point margin, and they’re less likely to being opposed to their child befriending an ex-fighter by an even wider margin of about 11 points. Bogotanos tend to be the most pessimistic, especially under Santos’ administration.

Still, wanting peace does not mean being inclined to forgive: the vast majority of Colombians (between 70 to 80 percent) are united in that they oppose judicial pardons for ex-rebels and 57 percent said in March 2015 that they did not want to sacrifice justice in order to have peace. While the FARC has advocated to only have ex-members who confessed crimes be punished, public opinion is staunchly against any types of pardons or reduced sentences, whether the ex-rebel confessed to a crime or not. Experts tend to favor mitigated punishments based on level of involvement and leadership in the organization.

This wall of public opposition to pardons comes up against the Santos government’s back as it attempts to negotiate transitional justice, or how to address ex-members’ criminal pasts, with the FARC. While negotiators in Havana, where the peace talks are being held, have reached agreements on three of the five points, transitional justice remains one of the most knotted points to resolve. “This is the most complex, most difficult issue that we’re facing,” Santos told the international community in March.

And even if an accord is reached, how long do Colombians think it will take for the country to reconcile? About one-fifth give a pragmatic 5 to 10 years estimation, while another fifth say it’ll never happen. Some 40 percent of Colombians, the largest segment, say they have no idea.