Two decades ago, when political scientist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history and declared that democracy had triumphed over fascism and communism, Marxist guerrilla groups listened. Many of them shed political ideology and turned to illicit mining, drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom. Since then, facing military and political pressures, these groups have largely demobilized. And now the last Marxist-led rebellion in South America might come to an end as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) negotiates for peace with the Colombian government in Havana, Cuba.
The negotiators face an uphill battle. Not only have numerous past negotiations between the FARC and Colombian government failed to deliver durable compromise, but, historically, successful bargains in civil wars across the world in the last century have proven to be rare and improbable. According to the civil war scholar Barbara F. Walter, only 17 of 41 civil wars between 1940 and 1990 contained formal negotiations for peace. Negotiations produced settlement agreements only eight times.
One reason for this is that civil wars differ from other wars. Negotiated settlement in civil war, unlike that in inter-state war, typically includes the complete dismantlement of the armed forces of the losing side. Whereas parties to international wars retain, post-conflict, the security that their respective militaries and territorial sovereignty allow, one side in a civil war loses all ability to defend itself. After dismantling their army and surrendering their conquered territory, combatants face increased vulnerability and diminished ability to verify the other side’s compliance with the settlement. A rational actor will not commit to agreements if it cannot be assured of the other side’s compliance as it transitions from strength to weakness.
The FARC has experienced this before. When several FARC factions disarmed in the 1980s to form a political party, their visibility and vulnerability made them perfect targets. Drug lords, paramilitary groups and government troops slowly exterminated the group.