By Juan Forero
Wednesday, August 11, 2010; A08
BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- The arrival of a more moderate president in Colombia has opened the possibility, if ever so slight, of talks with Marxist rebels to end a cocaine-fueled conflict that dates to the 1960s.
Although he oversaw decisive blows against Colombia's strongest rebel group as defense minister, President Juan Manuel Santos has expressed a willingness to negotiate with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to end Latin America's only armed conflict. "The door to talks is not locked," Santos said Saturday in his inaugural speech.
Carlos Lozano, editor of the communist weekly Voz, said Santos's comments suggest that Colombia's new government is open to considering negotiations. "That is important, particularly because his predecessor had practically closed the possibility, and his policy was to expand the war," Lozano said, referring to Álvaro Uribe, who stepped down after eight years in office.
Latin American leaders, some of whom were hostile to Uribe and his security policies, have expressed interest in helping Colombia forge a peace pact with the FARC, a group of 8,000 fighters that has weakened in recent years amid a U.S.-backed military offensive but remains resilient in the hinterlands.
Among those leaders is Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, who broke off relations with Uribe in 2008 after Colombia bombed a rebel camp inside Ecuador. This weekend, in an interview with Colombia's Caracol television, Correa said he could play a role in future talks with the rebels. "That struggle does not make any sense anymore," Correa said of the FARC's tactics.
The most startling comments, though, have come from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Just weeks ago, he had warned that relations could worsen if Santos was elected.
Instead, on Tuesday he arrived in the coastal Colombian city of Santa Marta and met with the new president to try to repair the diplomatic relations he had severed on July 22 after Uribe's government publicly accused Chávez of supporting the FARC.
The firebrand socialist, who has frequently lauded FARC rebels and invited top commanders to the presidential palace in Caracas, said over the weekend that the FARC should release hostages to open the way toward talks.
"The Colombian guerrillas do not have a future through the armed struggle," Chávez said on his TV show Sunday. "Just as one proposes that Colombia's government seek the path to peace, the guerrillas must also do it."
Chávez's comments came after Santos, upon being sworn in, expressed interest in renewing relations with Venezuela. That led to Tuesday's meeting, which ended with Santos announcing that Chávez would not permit illegal armed groups to operate in Venezuela. Earlier, at his inauguration, Santos also spoke of using his four-year term to plant "the foundation of a true reconciliation among Colombians" and end the war with the FARC.
The hermetic, dogmatic rebel group, which speaks of revolution but is considered a leading cocaine cartel, has also issued comments that have mollified Colombian officials.
In a video released last month, Guillermo Sáenz Vargas, the Bogota intellectual who heads the group, dropped the FARC's long-held demand for a demilitarized zone for talks. "What we are planting anew, once more, is, 'Man, let's talk,' " said Sáenz, who is better known as Alfonso Cano.
Experts on the FARC said they have no illusions that conversations could begin soon, largely because Santos has made them conditional on the rebels releasing hostages and calling a cease-fire.
The FARC and the Colombian state have been locked in all-out war since 2002, when President Andrés Pastrana broke off peace talks after accusing the rebels of using a huge swath of territory ceded by his government to hide hostages and plan attacks.
Soon afterward, Uribe won office, modernized the military and took back land that had been under guerrilla control. With Uribe gone, political analysts say, the environment is slightly more conducive to rapprochement.
"Santos doesn't have that visceral hatred toward the FARC that Uribe had," said Adam Isacson, a military analyst in Washington, noting that Uribe's father was killed by the FARC. "He sees them more as an obstacle to clear out in the way of his government."
Camilo Gómez, a peace negotiator in the Pastrana government, said a combination of force and negotiations is the most likely route to peace, though he added that talks would probably have to be held outside Colombia.
Gómez also said a respected mediator could play a role, someone palatable to the region's left and right. He raised the possibility of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who will soon leave office.