Colombia: Will peace talks with the FARC guerrillas work this time around?
A dove for peace: President Santos recently confirmed that his government and the FARC guerrillas were laying the ground for peace talks.
By MANUEL RUEDA
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced on Monday evening that his government is holding “exploratory [peace] talks” with Latin America’s oldest and most important guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia aka the FARC.
This is big news for Colombia, where the government and the FARC have been fighting each other since the 1960s, in a war that has left more than 50,000 dead and has forced millions to flee their homes.
But will peace talks work this time around? And, what makes this different from previous attempts to stem the violence?
According to the AP “much has changed” since the last round of peace talks was launched unsuccessfully in 1999.
Back then, the FARC counted with some 20,000 troops, and the organization held an important presence throughout much of the country. The FARC was so powerful in 1999, that in order to encourage the rebels to engage in talks, the government agreed to give them a safe haven the size of Switzerland. But the rebels used this demilitarized zone to hide kidnapping victims and train new recruits, embarrassing President Andres Pastrana and prompting him to cancel talks in 2002.
This time around, there’s no talk about a safe haven as a condition for peace negotiations. And President Santos has promised that as talks develop, the Colombian military will “maintain operations on every centimeter of national territory.”
But the biggest difference nowadays, is that the FARC’s military power has been diminished significantly over the past 10 years. Their numbers are half what they used to be in 2002 the AP reports. Eight billion dollars of US military aid, loads of new equipment, and a decade of hardline security policies, have helped Colombia’s armed forces to put the guerrillas on the run, and push them into the country’s remotest areas.
On top of that, three members of the FARC’s top brass have been killed in military raids since 2008, including the FARC’s number two leader Raul Reyes, and Alfonso Cano, who had replaced the FARC’s long-time leader Manuel Marulanda, after he died from a heart attack in 2009.
With all these setbacks, one would think that the guerrillas would be more willing to call it a day. A recent “peace law” passed by the Colombian congress also gives rebel commanders an extra incentive to give up their struggle, as it calls for reduced prison sentences for those who are not found guilty of war crimes and protects former guerrillas from extradition to the United States.
In the past two years however, the rebels have shown significant signs of life, stepping up attacks against oil installations in the country. They have declared that they will no longer kidnap civilians in order to finance their struggle, but at the same time, they have refused to cede to government negotiators, who asked that the FARC halt operations before any talks could begin.
President Santos decided to waive this requirement in order to conduct exploratory talks with the FARC. And this has some analysts worried about the possible success of talks.
“It would have been preferable if these dialogues were initiated with an indefinite cease-fire, unilateral and definitive on the FARC rebels’ part,” security expert Alfredo Rangel told the AP. “The idea of dialogue in the midst of confrontation is an idea whose weaknesses have been evident,” Rangel said.
Another issue that could jeopardize the talks is Colombia’s political cycle. Ariel Avilla, a conflict researcher at the Nuevo Arco Iris think tank, told The Guardian that the peace talks could get “trapped” in the 2014 electoral process, a year in which President Santos is likely to run for re-election.
Avila has also argued on Colombian media that peace talks could be jeopardized by rising rates of violence in areas of the country that hold highly coveted gold mines and oil reserves.
But some analysts are more optimistic. Camilo Gomez, a former chief government negotiator, writes in El Tiempo that the Colombian government is now in a “more solid position” than when negotiations took place in 1999.
“Our economy is passing through a good moment,” Gomez says. “Our international relations are at a high point, and our military and police forces are stronger than they were back then,” Gomez writes.
During talks, the Colombian government, will be looking out for assurances that the FARC will not use peace dialogues as a way to ramp up their operations, as they did in 1999.
The FARC meanwhile, will look for signs that its members and sympathizers will not be massacred by paramilitary groups if they enter civilian politics, which happened following peace talks in the early 80s.
According to Colombia’s RCN Radio and Venezuela’s Telesur network, the latest round of peace talks is formally set to beging in Oslo, Norway during the first week of October.
Telesur also reported that the Oslo talks were set up in Havana earlier this month, with the mediation of Venezuelan and Norwegian diplomats.
The Colombian government has neither confirmed, nor denied this information.