Colombia’s Delicate Talks With the FARC: Will They Work This Time?

The conflict has lasted for nearly half-century. Can Santos finally bring it to an end via negotiations?

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Fernando Vergara / AP

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos delivers a speech during a televised address to the nation at the presidential palace in Bogota, Colombia, Aug. 27, 2012.

At a Colombian military base last week President Juan Manuel Santos saluted his youngest son, who received a crew cut and combat boots upon his induction into the army. Esteban Santos, 18, is training for a Special Forces unit that will battle the country’s Marxist guerrillas. But if his father has his way the Colombian conflict that began in 1964 will be over before Esteban ever sets foot in the war zone.

Santos announced Monday night that his envoys have begun preliminary talks with the country’s largest guerrilla force, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC. “Since the first day of my administration, I have obeyed the constitutional obligation to seek peace. Towards this direction, we have undertaken exploratory conversations with the FARC,” Santos said in a brief televised address. He added that a second rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, might also join the talks.

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Yet Santos refused to provide further details. He was forced to go public after Venezuela’s Telesur TV station and former Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos – the president’s cousin who is now news director for Bogotá’s RCN Radio station – reported on the meetings and claimed that formal peace negotiations would begin in Cuba with an inaugural ceremony in Oslo, Norway, on Oct. 5.

The Colombian president has good reason for caution. Three previous efforts to reach a peace accord with the FARC, dating back to the early 1980s, went nowhere. The last round collapsed in February2002 after rebels skyjacked a Colombian commuter plane and kidnapped a senator on board.

So what’s changed? Why would the government once again sit down with a rebel army that is widely viewed as a drug-trafficking terrorist group with almost no popular support?

For starters, the balance of power has shifted. A decade ago, the FARC was at its military pinnacle with 15,000 fighters who regularly overran poorly defended towns and army bases. Rebel commanders toyed with negotiators because they still dreamed of marching triumphantly into Bogotá. But a long-running U.S.-backed military offensive has cut the FARC’s troop numbers nearly in half. In an interview last month with a British TV reporter, FARC comandante Fabián Ramírez said: “What I want to do is end the war.”

So does Santos, a former defense minister who has governed as a pragmatic centrist since he was elected in 2010. An end to the fighting would allow him to cut military spending and dedicate more money to badly need infrastructure, education and health projects at a time when U.S. aid to Colombia is being reduced. Real progress towards peace would also provide Santos with a powerful argument for reelection in 2014.

To that end, pro-government legislators have pushed through a new law to redistribute land, a historic FARC concern, and a constitutional amendment that would pardon guerrillas for many of their actions – though not war crimes – and allow them to participate in politics if they disarm.

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According to RCN and Telesur, the negotiating agenda includes the issue of the FARC’s disarmament. That may seem obvious but it’s a point rebel leaders steadfastly refused to discuss during the aborted talks 10 years ago. In other words, analysts say, this time the FARC may be serious.

Santos’s announcement was greeted with cautious optimism by many business and political leaders. Referring to two of the FARC’s top commanders, Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre said: “If it’s required to bring about peace, I would prefer to have Timochenko and Márquez serving in Congress rather than kidnapping people and sowing violence across Colombia.”

Yet many Colombians cannot fathom former FARC commanders running for public office and say they have no business negotiating anything beyond the conditions of their surrender. Chief among these critics is former President Álvaro Uribe, a hard-line conservative who launched the military campaign against the FARC in 2002 and has become Santos’s most high-profile detractor. In a speech Monday, Uribe said: “This government has abandoned the people in order to negotiate with terrorists.”

Another problem is that public support for negotiations could disappear if the FARC continues to recruit child soldiers and attack the civilian population, according to Álvaro Jimenez, director of a Colombian NGO that lobbies against the use of land mines. That’s why some experts are calling for a ceasefire before talks begin.

“Santos is known as a good poker player but this is very high-risk,” says Daniel García-Peña, a former government peace negotiator who supports the president’s initiative. “If it doesn’t work it could ruin his reelection plans.”

Without an accord, however, the war will grind on. Funded by drug profits, the FARC still has 8,000 to 9,000 fighters who continue to attack government troops, oil pipelines, and electric towers. On Sunday, suspected FARC rebels set off a car bomb in southern Colombia that killed six civilians, including two children.

“Can you imagine what a peaceful Colombia would be like?” Santos said two days after the explosion. “Our generation hasn’t lived one day in peace. But I want the new generations to experience and enjoy a peaceful Colombia.” Foremost on his mind was a newly minted Colombian soldier who happens to be his son.

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