The Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels suspended their participation in peace talks in Cuba on Friday, complicating nine months of painstaking negotiation aimed at ending five decades of bloodshed.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos called his negotiating team home from Havana after the FARC said it would “pause” the talks to review a government plan to put any peace deal to a popular vote.
It was the first interruption to talks that began in November last year and a sudden dent to hopes the two sides would soon see the talks through to the end, after recent comments from the Marxist group had given cause for optimism.
While the halt to talks will worry Colombians, analysts said there is little reason to suspect the two sides will not resume talks again.
Santos, who bet his political legacy on bringing peace to the Andean nation, on Thursday sent a bill to the Colombian Congress that calls for a referendum on any peace accord during national elections in either March or May next year.
“The FARC has decided to pause the discussions at the table, to focus exclusively on analyzing the implications of the government’s proposal,” Pablo Catatumbo, one of the lead FARC negotiators, said in a statement.
Santos said discussions would only resume when the government considered it appropriate.
“We are going to assess their statement, their behavior toward the government initiative [which aims] to accelerate the solution of the conflict,” Santos said in a statement. “In this process, the one who makes, pauses and establishes the conditions is not the FARC.”
The rebel group has repeatedly said that it sees a constituent assembly as the best way to enshrine the tenets of a peace accord in the country’s constitution and does not trust that a referendum would protect agreements reached in Havana.
Colombians are desperate to see an end to the war that has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced millions since 1964.
Santos is also eager to negotiate peace with the National Liberation Army, a smaller rebel group known as the ELN. He has said he wants the FARC peace accord by next month.
In the final year of his four-year term, Santos has ruled out a constituent assembly and said Colombians must support any deals reached before an end to the war can be declared.
He accepted the FARC’s right to study the government proposal, but urged the rebel negotiators not to take too long.
Some analysts say Bogota’s unilateral decision to seek a referendum goes against the spirit of the initial agreement that led to the talks, which said both sides would decide jointly how to ratify any deal.
“This incident weakens the peace process, but it is not at risk because it is just an incident and can be overcome,” said Carlos Lozano, political analyst and editor of left-leaning weekly magazine Voz.
The FARC has battled a dozen governments since it began as an agrarian struggle against rural inequality. Even while it has been severely weakened in the past decade by a US-backed offensive, it remains a formidable threat to the government and civilian population.
More than three dozen FARC commanders are in Havana working through a five-point agenda involving agrarian reform, reparation to victims, stemming the drug trade, an end to the conflict and its inclusion in the political system.