Dare we dream of peace in Colombia?

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Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed Monday evening that his government has entered into exploratory talks with the FARC to negotiate an end to 50 years of conflict.

Earlier in the day Venezuelan television channel Telesur reported that that both sides had signed an agreement to advance official peace negotiations scheduled for 5 October, in Oslo; details Santos refused to confirm.

The president has received support from across the political spectrum and in the country’s media. Ex-president Alvaro Uribe, however has denounced his successor as a traitor and an appeaser.

After ex-President Pastrana’s failed attempt to secure peace over a decade ago, and following a recent upsurge in FARC activity, there are also parts of Colombian society sceptical of Santos’ ability to end the continent’s longest-running civil war.

Dare we dream of a Colombia in peace?

Talking behind closed doors

President Santos has promised in the coming days to reveal the details of the 30 meetings held in private between his government and the FARC over recent months in Cuba. What we know is that Enrique Santos, the president’s brother led the delegation, and that representatives of the Chávez and Castro regimes were present. We also understand agreement was reached on the agenda for talks, the issues for negotiation and potentially the red-lines.

Crucially, it is reported that the facilitators were able to establish a level of trust between the terrorist group and the government (evidenced by the FARC’s decision to maintain silence throughout the day and wait for the President to speak) – essential if peace talks are to be successful.

Santos has received severe criticism from Uribe and his followers – both for entering into discussion while bombs explode and battles rage, and for doing so clandestinely.

But Uribe is not the only source of opposition, there are sections of society highly critical of Santos’ approaches to the guerrilla group. They point to the level of violence evident in different regions of the country and argue that the FARC are not ready to negotiate.

They might have a point, but analysing the situation differently it is easy to see that the FARC’s recent actions are a sign of desperation, a last-ditch attempt to improve their position at the negotiating table.

Neverthless it will be difficult for President Santos to hold his coalition and the nation together throughout a peace process whose timescales are unknown. The president has confirmed that the talks are not conditioned on a cease-fire, and will therefore run parallel with the battles, the deaths, the bombs and the political recriminations.

The guerrillas will seek to prove they are still a viable fighting force, we must not allow them to convince us that they are.

How will the talks work?

President Santos made clear that the country had learnt the errors of the past. The infamous talks at El Caguan that broke down in 2002 have become a byword for the FARC’s duplicity. The rebel group ridiculed Pastrana’s government with broken promises that forced Colombians to lose all confidence in their political leaders. Uribe came to power on the back of the collapse in these talks, promising to punish the FARC.

Santos is a statesman that has studied closely this episode, and of course more successful negotations across the world. He has previously sought help from former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair who masterminded the famous peace agreement in Northern Ireland.

He is also a president who has worked for decades to end the conflict. Even in 1997 when Santos was the Liberal’s pre-candidate for the presidential elections of 1998, he had a clear plan for peace. When Santos entered the presidential palace he placed the search for peace not only at the heart of his inauguration speech, but also his legislative agenda.

Santos is desperate for his legacy to be the president that delivered peace to Colombia.

As well as Santos’ abilities there are other reasons to be optimistic that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated. The most important is perhaps the change in dynamic between the government and the FARC. In 2002 the state was weak while the guerrillas were in the ascendancy. There was no imperative for the FARC to negotiate or give up a struggle they had every chance of winning. Following Plan Colombia and the money invested during the Uribe years in fighting back the rebels, the Colombian state has emerged healthy and economically successful while the guerrillas are on their last legs.

Equally, the government is in a significantly better position to offer the FARC what they want. The transitional justice laws are in place that will permit a negotated settlement for criminal punishments, and also lies open the way for political representation. Additionally, the Santos regime can point to the land restitution law which helps deliver a flagship FARC demand for rural community justice.

Finally, the Caguan peace talks were dominated by discussions about securing a cease fire and a demilitarised zone. In Oslo this will not be on the agenda, permitting the focus to lie instead on the fundamental issues upon which a lasting peace can be established.

Speculation suggests that the talks will centre on the following issues:

  • Narco-Trafficking
  • Reintegration into civil society and political representation
  • Rural development
  • Human rights
  • Once Santos – in the coming days – starts to confirm the detail of the talks, it is hoped he will also reveal the names of the negotiators. It is speculated that ex-president Cesar Gaviria will lead the government team, with a significant international contingent including Hugo Chávez and Chilean President Piñera also expected to be present.

    While there has been no word from the FARC, and questions remain about the ability of its top brass to speak with unity for the fractured organisation, Timochenko and Fabián Ramírez are tipped to participate.

    So is peace in sight?

    The conditions are not perfect, the FARC remain a force whose acts of atrocity have increased dramatically since the turn of the year. But the conditions will never be ideal, and it is clear that neither the government nor the guerrillas have achieved their goals through military means.

    By holding the talks in Oslo (famous for negotiated peace settlements between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government among others) in the presence of the international community, it will be difficult for either side to complain of bias or illegitimacy.

    An unresolved question is how involved the Colombian people will become and how President Santos can keep them onside. There are rumours that the government have hosted a series of focus-groups across the country, to understand reaction to the guerrillas and to possible peace accords. Now the talks are in the open, the government cannot afford to risk losing popular support as it inevitably asks Colombians to swallow unpleasant concessions.

    The Colombian government has a constitutional duty to seek peace and President Santos’ efforts must be supported. The FARC are a spent force whose leaders have spoken of their desire to bring the war to an end. They have fooled us before, but this time things might just be different.

    Uribe will continue to attack but he should reflect that the advances in security made during his eight years in power have made today’s announcement possible. When Uribe entered office he spoke of his hope that the guerrilla would demobilise and that Colombia would have a ‘politics with arms’.

    It will be a long a painful journey, but the alternative is another decade of bombs, bullets, kidnappings and assassinations. A Colombia in peace is the ‘country within reach of the children’ as Garcia Márquez put it.

    Posted by Kevin Howlett from Colombia-Politics
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