Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos says talks with rebels will start next month

Fernando Vergara/AP - Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos said that the talks that began in February in Cuba had produced five-point framework agenda for official negotiations that will begin in October in Oslo before moving back to Havana.

BOGOTA, Colombia — In a Cuban government house in a leafy Havana neighborhood earlier this year, Colombian rebel commanders and their government adversaries secretly debated how to carve out a path to peace and end Latin America’s most intractable guerrilla war.

Colombia has been embroiled in violence since 1964, and as recently as 10 days ago there were few public signs that the two sides were considering a peaceful end to a conflict marked by hit-and-run strikes and terrorist bombings. But on Tuesday, President Juan Manuel Santos revealed that the talks in Cuba, which began in February and lasted six months, had produced a streamlined, five-point framework agenda for official negotiations that will open in October in Oslo before moving back to Havana.



Colombian rebels have released their rap music video to announce that they are ready to enter peace talks. (Via YouTube)

“It’s a difficult road, no doubt very difficult, but it is a road that we have to explore,” Santos said in a nationally televised speech, flanked as he spoke by top military and political leaders. “Any responsible leader knows that you cannot pass up a possibility like this one to end the conflict.”

According to the most optimistic assessment offered by senior government officials, a peace agreement would be reached by April. That would bring to a close a drug-fueled war that has bedeviled not only numerous Colombian leaders but also the United States, Bogota’s closest ally and benefactor, which has spent on average $700 million a year here in mostly military aid.

Beginning with President Bill Clinton’s administration, the United States has steadily involved itself in Colombia’s fight to stem the northward flow of cocaine as well as in its broad anti-guerrilla strategy.

If a peace agreement is signed, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, would demobilize its far-flung units, disarm nearly 9,000 fighters and give up its long-stated aim of toppling the government.

Santos’s administration would guarantee that a rebel army that began its fight as a tiny peasant force in the hamlet of Marquetalia 48 years ago could transform itself into a legal social or political movement, government officials say. According to analysts, that is the most vital point for FARC commanders — and the most challenging for the government, which along with the United States blacklists the FARC as a terrorist group and accuses many of its leaders of war crimes and drug trafficking.

With a few scant details about the talks leaking out over the weekend, the FARC has signaled its support, even issuing a rap video Monday in which young rebels sing “about going to Havana — this time to converse.” The video ends with the guerrillas marching off, carrying a suitcase, a playful note for a group that inspires fear in many Colombians.

On Tuesday, the FARC’s leader, Rodrigo Londoño, better known by his alias Timochenko, said in a video released in Cuba that the guerrillas want “a lasting peace, democratic and just.”

In Washington, President Obama welcomed Santos’s announcement and called on the FARC to “take this opportunity to end its decades of terrorism and narcotics trafficking,” according to a White House statement.

Other governments have played an active role in the talks, with Cuba and Norway named as “guarantors” that will closely monitor formal negotiations. The leftist government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, which has had ties with leading FARC commanders, will have a supporting role. Chavez’s envoys will not sit in on talks, but will be on hand to provide assistance to both sides. The center-right government of Chile will have a similar function.

Under the framework agreement, the two sides said they would work together to battle drug trafficking, which is rife in regions where the FARC wields influence. The rights of victims will be paramount in the negotiations, Santos said, a priority that could result in a truth commission to probe crimes both sides committed.

“All Colombians have the right to know what happened and who was responsible,” Santos said.

The government also agrees to discuss development programs in Colombia’s poor rural regions, an issue it has previously largely ignored. “This means more access to land, providing infrastructure to the distant regions, making sure prosperity and government services reach all people in the countryside,” Santos said.

And while no cease-fire will be declared during the talks, the two sides agreed to discuss how to bring one about.

That may seem obvious, said Sergio Jaramillo, the government’s national security adviser and an architect of the negotiations. But in past talks with the FARC, most notably a three-year peace process that broke down in acrimony in 2002, the rebels have adamantly refused to discuss putting down their weapons.

“You agree that this is about ending the conflict,” Jaramillo said, referring to the government side. “Both sides agree that it has to be an effective process and done in an expedient manner.”

Jaramillo explained that as negotiators make progress in Cuba, the two sides will agree to simultaneously carry out the agreement here in Colombia. “You deliver, I deliver,” Jaramillo said, referring to how the process is supposed to work. “We build a system of verification to make sure it happens at the same time.”

Though this will be the fourth time since the 1980s that the government has attempted talks with the FARC, the goals set out in the framework agreement are more modest, and the talks are taking place without ceding territory to the FARC, as it had once demanded.

“If there are not advances, we simply won’t continue,” Santos said.

Aldo Civico, a Rutgers University conflict specialist who often works in Colombia, said the goals in the upcoming talks appear realistic. Gone from the agenda are open-ended discussions or far-reaching FARC demands, such as those in the past that called for changes to Colombia’s capitalist economy.

“I think they’re going more pragmatic and realistic, and if that’s the case, we can with some prudence be optimistic that there’s some real commitment by the FARC to have a serious process,” Civico said.

A former defense minister who oversaw some of the government’s biggest blows against the FARC, Santos has since becoming president two years ago introduced laws to compensate victims of violence and distribute land to those displaced by the rebels and other armed groups.

Those measures, along with diplomatic initiatives that improved once-bitter relations with Venezuela’s government, have served as signs to the FARC that it can work with Santos, analysts here say.

“I think that the president’s actions provide a level of confidence so that the FARC can take a step,” said Francisco Galan, a former commander in a smaller guerrilla band, the National Liberation Army, who now lives in Bogota and works on peace-building initiatives. “There’s never been so much freedom to talk about the possibility of a peace process as there is now.”

 
Read what others are saying