Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Aug. 27 confirmed an earlier Telesur report that representatives of his government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed an agreement that day in Havana that peace talks would begin in October in Oslo, Norway. The parties had been talking in secret for two years about ending 50 years of brutal armed conflict. The smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) will be joining the peace process.
Santos identified three assumptions behind upcoming negotiations: Avoid errors of past talks; work toward ending, not prolonging, conflict and continuing military operations. Negotiators in Oslo were assigned six as yet undisclosed agenda items. Colombian ex-president César Gaviria will mediate talks that will eventually return to Havana.
Santos went to Cuba in March ostensibly to tell Cuban President Raul Castro of Cuba's exclusion from the OAS summit he was hosting in Cartagena in April. But, joined by Norwegian and Venezuelan representatives, they secretly planned the just-concluded preparatory talks.
The government team included Santos' national security advisor, his environmental minister, and his brother Enrique Santos Calderón. On hand for the FARC were military chiefs Jaime Alberto Parra and Andrés París and international relations specialists Rodrigo Granda and Marcos Calarcá. From 2002-2010, Cuba hosted talks between the ELN and Colombian government that were unsuccessful.
Rumors had been circulating. An interviewer recently asked Communist leader Carlos Lozano about Santos' outreach to the FARC. On August 19 ex-President Álvaro Uribe pronounced that "negotiating with the FARC terrorist group in Cuba [is] incomprehensible."
Yet the stage had been set. On taking office two years ago Santos announced he would dialogue with the FARC. In June the Congress approved constitutional reform opening the way to negotiation. Guerrilla leaders giving up armed struggle would suffer no penalties. Mechanisms were set for prioritizing cases of human rights violations.
In August 2011, FARC leader Alfonso Cano reiterated FARC inclination toward negotiation. The FARC early in 2012 indicated it would no longer kidnap civilians in order to raise money and later released its last captive soldiers and police. Current FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez on August 14 reasserted FARC desire for peace. But there would be no surrender; he envisioned instead "a scenario in which the Colombian people can once more speak out and at last obtain justice for all the barbarism they've suffered."
A recent public opinion poll confined to cities showed 74 percent of responders opting for dialogue. And "if the insurgency negotiates today it's because they can negotiate," opines analyst José Antonio Gutiérrez. The FARC "has the capacity to operate in all the national territory, with a renewed capacity to take on the state's armed forces, [and] the insurgency is an unavoidable political reality, a true double force."
Santos, he writes, is responding to powerful forces disenchanted with predecessor President Alvaro Uribe's approach. That government served narcotrafficers, ranchers, and old-style landowning bosses, those "sectors of the bourgeoisie that depend, structurally, on violent dispossession to accumulate capital." Uribe's image has suffered with the jailing and extradition of former military and political associates and from family and personal connections to drug trafficking.
Santos is turning to powerbrokers intent upon building foreign investment in land and natural resources. They view with alarm intensification of violent conflict and popular mobilization resulting from repression, killings, and displacement from land An El Tiempo editorial was speaking for them perhaps: "Negotiation is an inescapable scenario on the road to peace; it's necessary to support measures having the purpose of silencing guns." Billionaire banker Luis Carlos Sarmiento, Colombia's richest individual, controls El Tiempo, formerly owned by the Santos family.
Lessons from history are discouraging. The M-19 guerrillas relinquished arms in 1990, but the agreement left out what they fought for. In 1985 FARC guerrillas, having settled with the government, joined civilian leftists to form the Patriotic Union electoral coalition. Then followed state-tolerated massacre of UP activists. Peace negotiations beginning in 1998 were undone, says then President Andrés Pastrana, because the FARC knew that under U.S. Plan Colombia, taking effect in 2000, the Colombian military would remain "armed to the teeth."
Nevertheless, declared the Colombian Communist Party, the start of negotiations "is a transcendent step in the search for peace." It shows that "objective factors have come together requiring a political rather than a military solution to the conflict. The process must be backed up by popular mobilization putting pressure on negotiators to agree on "truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees." Labor, indigenous, and small farmer rights have to be recognized. And watch out for the U.S. Southern Command, the party statement warns.
Photo: President Santos delivering speech. Fernando Vergara/AP