Negotiators for the government of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were to meet in Havana, Cuba, yesterday for talks aimed at ending Latin America’s longest-running insurgency.
Chief Colombian government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said he believed this is “the defining moment” to reach a peace deal with the FARC guerrillas, as both sides have agreed that talks “must end with a final agreement on the conflict.”
The Santos administration wants to build “a stable peace,” De la Calle told reporters as he boarded a plane for Havana on Sunday, and envisaged that “the FARC would be turned into a legal political party.”
Colombian officials and the FARC symbolically opened peace talks in Norway last month, raising hopes that the decades-long conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands Colombians may finally come to an end.
Support for the FARC would best be gauged in an election, said Tanja Nijmeijer, a Dutch woman who has fought with the guerrillas for a decade and is the group’s spokesperson at the talks.
“Only if FARC laid down its weapons and maybe in 2014 participate in the elections will it be known how big our support really is,” Nijmeijer told a Dutch newspaper last week.
There are signs that Latin America’s largest rebel group, founded in 1964 and believed to have about 9,200 armed fighters, may be ready for a truce after a long string of setbacks.
In recent years, several top FARC members have been captured or killed, the group has suffered military defeats and its ranks have dropped to half the number of fighters compared to their peak in the 1990s.
Yet some remain skeptical of the peace effort — the first of its kind since 1992 — since no ceasefire has been declared.
The Colombian government has said it will give the talks “a few months” to succeed, while the FARC has warned against an “express peace.”
The latest talks were scheduled to start on Thursday last week, but were delayed to clarify the role of civilian representatives.
The talks, the fourth attempt at peace between Bogota and the FARC, will focus on a five-point agenda that includes the thorny issue of rural development.
The FARC took up arms almost 50 years ago to protest the concentration of land ownership in Colombia. Little has changed over the years, as more than half of the country’s largest properties are controlled by 1 percent of the population, a UN report released last year showed.
“The war in Colombia has mainly been a rural war that has affected a great number of farmers,” said Alejandro Reyes, sociologist and analyst for the Web site Razon Publica. “The rural issue is a golden bridge that allows the guerrillas to get out of the conflict and enter mainstream politics.”
However, both sides must also agree on a mechanism to end hostilities, incorporate the rebels in political life, curb drug trafficking and compensate victims of abuses committed by guerrillas and Colombian government troops.
According to the UN, hundreds of thousands of people have died and 4 million driven from their homes in a conflict that also involves a smaller guerrilla army and right-wing paramilitary groups.