For the first time in over a decade there are signs Colombia’s multi-billion-dollar war against the FARC rebels may come to an end. With formal peace talks between the Colombian government and the guerrillas set to take place in the Norwegian capital of Oslo on 8 October, the government is publicly optimistic.
"I really believe that the conditions exist… we can reach an agreement to end this conflict… we are in the process of promoting reconciliation," declared Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on the International Day of Peace, last Friday.
Santos addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, describing the ongoing war with FARC as "absurd", and admitting that although the government had maintained feelers in the FARC for two years, a public resolution would be more "concrete". The Americas Society that night presented Santos with the Gold Insigne, the organisation’s highest honour, in recognition of his leadership.
Santos recently ended months of speculation and formally confirmed his government had agreed to talk with FARC and seek a negotiated end to the country’s 48-year-old armed conflict. Rumours that FARC commanders and their government adversaries had secretly met in Cuba to debate how to end the war had been circulating in the media since February.
On 27 August, in a televised address to the nation, Santos said, "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 in order to seek an end to the conflict."
Santos stressed the government would learn from the mistakes of the past, rather than repeat them. These are the first major peace talks between the government and FARC since negotiations ended in disaster in 2002. The latest failed peace process discredited the notion of negotiating with the guerrillas and paved the way for the hard-line policies of Alvaro Uribe, who enjoyed record high approval ratings during his eight years as Colombia’s head of state.
A central pillar of Pastrana’s successful presidential campaign in 1998 was the promise of peace talks with FARC. Yet over the course of his four year term, the rebels routinely embarrassed the Colombian president; failing to show up at key meetings with the government, stepping up attacks on urban centres and using their specially designated demilitarised zone to traffic illegal arms and narcotics.
The guerrillas’ attitude towards negotiations in the Pastrana era was indicative of their strength. However, the FARC of 2012 is not the same enemy it was in the late 1990s.
Harvey Kline, who has written extensively on modern Colombian presidencies, believes the government is now in a much stronger position than it was a decade ago. "The critical difference is that the government has a clear military advantage," he told Colombia Reports. Kline estimates FARC numbers are between 6,000-8,000 active soldiers, compared to nearly 20,000 soldiers 12 years ago.
The decline in active fighters has been accompanied by a number of high profile setbacks for FARC over the past decade. The most famous example occurred on July 2, 2008 when the army rescued former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt from FARC imprisonment. To add to their troubles, the Colombian military has successfully killed several senior FARC leaders over the past four years, such as Alfonso Cano, Mono Jojoy and Raul Reyes.
For their part, FARC continues to deny they are negotiating from a position of weakness. "We are strong militarily and politically … it is not that we have weakened … though we have been dealt some blows," insisted senior rebel spokesman Rodrigo Granda in a recent interview with the BBC.
Although the peace talks are still in their infancy, the stratagem certainly appears to be a political winner for Santos. According to a Gallup poll in August, 60 per cent of Colombians are in favor of a political solution to the conflict. In June that figure was 52 per cent. The president’s personal approval rating improved since the talks became public and now sit at a very respectable 72 per cent.
According to Kline, a peace agreement whereby FARC cease hostilities and demobilize "would definitely ensure his re-election in 2014." On the other hand, he believes that unsuccessful negotiations would not necessarily cripple his presidency as it did with Pastrana, given Santos will have the advantage of incumbency and never made peace talks part of his campaign platform in 2010.
The international community has thrown its support behind Santos. Key organisations and neighbouring countries, such as Cuba, Venezuela, Chile, the Organization of American States, the European Union, the United Nations and the Catholic Church, have all expressed support for the peace process.
Importantly, the US government has also reacted positively. "The Santos administration has demonstrated a unwavering commitment to the search for lasting peace and to ensure the best life for all Colombians through political security and social inclusion", according to a White House press statement released on 4 September.
Yet the peace process is not without its detractors. At the forefront of the opposition is Uribe, who has launched a withering campaign in the media against Santos, his former defence minister. "How sad that FARC assassins and kidnappers today are political figures talking to the world with their tricks!" Uribe tweeted on 4 September.
Uribe has long held the view that any negotiation with the guerrillas can only begin once they have completely ceased criminal activities. "What can you negotiate with the narco, with the kidnapper, with the extortionist, with anyone responsible of violating the international humanitarian right? The only thing that you can negotiate with them is the submission to justice," he argued in late August.
Latin American affairs specialist and former advisor to the Bush administration, Jose Cardenas, appeared to be channelling Uribe when he described the peace talks in a recent Foreign Policy article as, "a dangerous gambit that threatens to undo a decade’s worth of hard-won military gains that have rescued Colombia from the brink of failed-state status.
Yet at this early stage, it is unclear how much Santos and FARC are willing to concede to each other. The comprehensive agenda agreed upon by FARC and state representatives covers five main points: agrarian reform, political participation, a bilateral ceasefire, solution to the drug trafficking problem and reconciliation.
"Colombia has a historical chance to affect change. There is an emerging convergence between disparate forces: the insurgents, the landed economic elite, the urban bourgeoisie led by Santos and the armed forces," Nazih Richani, the Director of Latin American studies at Kean University, told Colombia Reports.
Five main negotiators from each party will travel to Oslo early next month, where the second phase of negotiations will begin. Each delegation is allowed to bring a maximum of 30 consultants to the negotiating table.
The government and FARC have agreed on a time limit of months, not years. "We hope to get to these agreements soon, because the sooner we get to them the more lives we will save," said Santos.
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