BOGOTA, Colombia — The Colombian government says it has embarked on “exploratory talks” with rebel commanders to end one of the world’s oldest armed conflicts, a hit-and-run guerrilla war that is fueled by the cocaine trade and leaves hundreds dead every year.
President Juan Manuel Santos’s brief announcement in a nationally televised address prompted cautious optimism Tuesday in a country where polls show that 74 percent of people support talks to end the conflict. Though in recent years Colombia has become more peaceful and attracted record levels of foreign investment, terrorist attacks and combat are not uncommon in the countryside far from the biggest cities.
“Any process has to bring the end of the conflict, not prolong it,” Santos told his countrymen Monday night, stressing that military operations will continue.
The president did not reveal details of the talks. But RCN Radio in Bogota and Venezuela’s state-run television network, Telesur, reported that Santos and negotiators from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had agreed to begin official peace negotiations in Oslo in October. Colombian media had also reported that discussions between the two sides had been secretly taking place in Cuba.
Sen. Roy Barreras, the president of Colombia’s congress, told reporters that the government should proceed with “prudence and caution,” though he said he supports the talks.
“What needs to be done is to find a path so all Colombians can put their faith in the construction of a new country,” said Barreras, who warned about “interminable” talks that go nowhere. “For the violent Colombians, this is also an opportunity for social and political reintegration.”
In Washington, Cynthia Arnson, a Woodrow Wilson Center scholar who has closely followed Colombia’s conflict, called the developments a “really promising moment.”
“It looks like a lot of Colombians of diverse political stripes are cautiously in favor of a process like this,” Arnson said.
This is not the first time the government has embarked on talks with the FARC, a group founded in 1964 by armed peasants in the rugged, nearly impenetrable mountains of southwestern Colombia. As the ragtag group of fighters slowly became a rebel army with several thousand members, presidents and their envoys began to appeal to FARC commanders to end the conflict through negotiations.
But talks in Mexico and Venezuela in the 1980s and in the plains state of Meta in the 1990s ended in acrimony. Under President Andres Pastrana, the government ceded a swath of cattle pastures and forests the size of Switzerland to the FARC in exchange for talks. But troops were sent in to seize back the territory in 2002 after the rebels were accused of stockpiling weapons, cultivating the crop used to make cocaine and hiding hostages.
The past decade, though, has not been kind to the rebels, who fund their way by taxing all aspects of the drug trade.
An increasingly modern and professional army, which has received U.S. helicopters, intelligence assistance and training valued at hundreds of millions of dollars a year, has struck decisive blows that have killed many of the FARC’s most legendary commanders. Last November, an elite commando force killed the group’s supreme commander, Guillermo Saenz Vargas, better known by the alias Alfonso Cano, in a shootout.
A government program designed to spur desertions has led thousands to abandon the group, dozens of them experienced, battle-hardened rebels who have provided the army with intelligence information used in military operations. The FARC is still thought to have 8,000 to 9,000 fighters, but that is less than half what it had a decade ago.
“Seeking a negotiated solution is a reflection of the setbacks the FARC has suffered,” Arnson said. “And it’s an attempt to achieve some social transformation at the bargaining table that they have not been able to achieve on the battlefield.”
The FARC is engaging in talks with an adversary its commanders appear increasingly open to trusting: Santos, scion of a politically influential family that once ran Colombia’s most important newspaper. Though Santos was a hard-line defense minister in the government of his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, he has shown that as president, he can be politically flexible in order to bring the rebels to the negotiating table.
His government repaired broken relations with Venezuela’s leftist president, Hugo Chavez, whom the FARC views favorably. Santos also pushed through reforms designed to compensate victims of political violence and return land to thousands of people displaced by armed groups, including the right-wing militias that collaborated closely with military units. The FARC leadership viewed all those gestures positively.
Carlos Lozano, editor of the communist newspaper Voz and an activist who has had contacts with FARC commanders, said the guerrillas will need the state to protect them from reprisal killings as the group engages in negotiations. In the 1980s and early 1990s, hundreds of members of the Patriotic Union, a leftist political party partly created by FARC leaders, were gunned down by death squads.
“The state must ensure safety, that they’re not killed,” Lozano said, referring to the FARC leadership. “But the state also has to guarantee them political space in which to operate.”