Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos needs to overcome opposition from his former mentor and a history of guerrilla deception to forge a peace accord with the nation’s biggest rebel group.
Santos yesterday said his government will sit down with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in Oslo, next month for talks aimed at ending Latin America’s longest-running civil conflict. Former President Alvaro Uribe immediately rejected the overture, accusing his one-time defense minister of handing the country over to “criminals” and boosting the re-election chances of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
The first talks in a decade between the government and the FARC comes as the Andean nation’s half-century conflict has reached a deadlock. Although the guerrillas have stepped up attacks this year, their ranks have thinned by half over the past decade, several of its leaders have been killed and remaining rebel units have been pushed to remote parts of the jungle as a result of a U.S.-funded crackdown.
“There are some grounds to be optimistic,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “But it’s going to be extremely tough.”
The government’s negotiating team will include retired General Oscar Naranjo, the architect of Uribe’s security policies, Santos said today.
Among the challenges Santos faces is a history of rebel subterfuge. Colombia’s last peace process collapsed in 2002 after the FARC used a Switzerland-size demilitarized zone to rearm and stage high-profile kidnappings of politicians. During the talks then President Andres Pastrana was photographed sitting at a negotiating table next to an empty plastic chair waiting in vain for rebel commander Manuel Marulanda. He never showed up, and the image of the empty chair became a symbol of the rebels’ lack of sincerity.
“There’s no guarantee that the FARC is not going to continue to play games,” said Shifter, who frequently visits Colombia. “It’s one thing to sit down for talks and another to demobilize and disarm.”
Santos, seeking to avoid the mistakes of the past, said there would be no troop withdrawals to facilitate talks, and some military operations would even intensify. The government announced today it had killed guerrilla Danilo Garcia, the “right-hand man” of FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, better known by his alias Timochenko, during an assault on a camp in northern Colombia.
In discussing the peace talks, Santos also promised negotiations would last months, not years like the previous peacemaking attempt. Still, he said the FARC representatives had kept their word in six months of secret talks with government officials in Havana, Cuba that led to yesterday’s accord.
“It’s a difficult road, without a doubt, very difficult, but it’s a road that we should explore,” Santos, 61, said in a nationally televised speech, adding that strong economic growth has laid the foundation for peace. “We can talk about peace because millions of Colombians are leaving poverty.”
FARC negotiators held a rare press conference in Havana yesterday to present a video message by Timochenko, who accused the Colombian military of acting as “blood-toothed vampires” in service of multinationals seeking access to the country’s resource wealth.
“For us it’s perfectly clear that the key to peace is not in the hands of the president or of the FARC’s commander,” said Timochenko, who became head of the FARC’s seven-man secretariat after troops killed his predecessor, alias Alfonso Cano, in a 2011 air strike.
While regretting the government’s refusal to cede territory, Timochenko said the FARC had agreed to talks because of Santos’ willingness to discuss a six-point agenda that includes longstanding rebel demands such as agrarian development and the granting of more political power to peasants.
In addition to a tough stance by the FARC, Uribe will “relentlessly, fiercely attack” the process, Shifter said. While Santos was responsible for some of the biggest blows against the FARC as Uribe’s defense minister, including the 2008 rescue of three U.S. defense contractors, he’s now accused by his still-popular former boss of undermining security gains.
“What a shame that FARC murderers and kidnappers are today political figures fooling the world with their talk,” Uribe wrote yesterday on his Twitter account.
Uribe has also said that engaging the FARC serves as “electoral propaganda” for Chavez, who is seeking a third term in an Oct. 7 vote. Chavez’s government, which the U.S. has accused of harboring FARC leaders and providing the group with weapons, will accompany the process along with Chile, whose billionaire President Sebastian Pinera is an ally of Santos. Norway and Cuba will broker the talks, according to the framework agreement signed by representatives of both sides.
“Hopefully this attempt at achieving peace doesn’t fail,” Chavez said in a speech last night congratulating Santos and the guerrilla leadership. “There’s been enough war.”
President Barack Obama urged the FARC to take advantage of the opportunity to end “decades of terrorism and narcotics trafficking,” according to a statement by the White House press secretary. The White House also reaffirmed the U.S.’s “longstanding defense and security partnership” with Colombia, which has received more than $8 billion in U.S. aid since 2002.
Any attempt to reincorporate the guerrillas into political and civilian life -- another part of the negotiating agenda -- would have to surmount challenges from the rebels’ victims and human rights groups, who oppose amnesty for those accused of atrocities. Four dozen FARC commanders, including Timochenko, are also wanted in the U.S. on charges of smuggling hundreds of tons of cocaine. The U.S. and European Union classify the FARC as a terrorist organization.
Reflecting the uncertain outcome of talks, investor reaction yesterday was muted. The benchmark IGBC stock index fell 1.1 percent, in line with losses elsewhere in Latin America.
“The market will focus on what will come from those first two weeks in October,” said Daniel Velandia, head of research at brokerage Correval SA in Bogota. “Up until now we’ve only gotten guidance of what could happen.”
If a deal is struck against the odds, investment that’s already reached record levels in recent years would surge even further, said Heather Berkman, a New York-based analyst at Eurasia Group. Victories over guerrillas have opened up swathes of countryside for companies to explore for crude, coal and gold, with state-run oil producer Ecopetrol SA expanding drilling into areas previously controlled by the Marxist rebels.
“This would be a pretty monumental turning point for Colombia,” said Berkman in a phone interview.
That’s exactly what Santos is gambling on. In a March 2011 interview, he said he’d like to go down in history as the Colombian president who signed a peace deal with the guerrillas.
“But I am in no hurry,” Santos said at the time. “They have to sit down seriously and then they will find a government willing to negotiate and willing to find a political solution.”