Colombians give cautious welcome to peace talks with Farc guerrillas

Fri, Aug 31, 2012, 01:00

The president has opened the door to ending decades of conflict, writes TOM HENNIGANin São Paulo

AFTER ALMOST half a century of civil war and various failed peace processes, most Colombians have given an understandably cautious welcome to Monday’s announcement that their government has started talks with the country’s left-wing guerrillas.

It was only a decade ago that the last round of negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) collapsed, revealing that both sides had used the interlude to re-equip and retrain.

Back then, Farc behaved as if it had won the war, or had the capacity to do so. It overreached. It has since lost the initiative to a military strengthened by billions of dollars in US aid.

In the intervening decade many of the group’s top commanders have been killed, its strength has been cut by between one-third and a half to an estimated 9,000 fighters and these have been pushed back from the cities to remote mountain and jungle regions.

These reverses probably explain why Farc has been willing to drop its demand that any talks take place in Colombia – “exploratory conversations” are understood to have been held in Cuba, with full talks possible in Norway by October.

That concession hints at rebel weakness but a better idea of just how beleaguered is Farc will become clear only when it lays out its negotiating position. In all previous talks it has demanded deep structural changes to Colombia’s political and economic system. The unwillingness of any government to meet those demands eventually provoked stalemate and renewed fighting.

Now President Juan Manuel Santos has sought to create an environment in which the guerrillas can lower their demands. He has kept up the military pressure – since he came to power in 2010 his troops have killed Farc’s top political and military commanders.

On Monday he said the military would continue its operations and maintain a presence across the country, ruling out a repeat of the 1999 peace effort when then president Andrés Pastrana ceded an area the size of Switzerland in the southeast of the country to Farc.

But President Santos has also passed a “peace framework law”. This opens the door to a possible amnesty for Farc leaders for crimes committed during the war. Amnesty infuriates hardliners and human rights groups alike but Farc’s comandantes were always unlikely to sign a peace agreement only to then face jail time.

With the law, President Santos has shown Farc a path to constitutional politics, something for which the weakened rebels might settle – turning to “bourgeois” democracy to achieve the changes its insurgency failed to deliver.

But there is no guarantee Farc will agree to these terms. Like comandante Timochenko, the group’s supreme leader, many of Farc’s upper echelons have spent their adult lives serving the revolution and are doctrinaire Marxists contemptuous of Colombia’s democracy, which they see as beholden to the country’s elite.

And while they are weakened they are not beaten.

“Farc is not as strong as in 2002 but it is not as weak as the majority of Colombian society thinks,” said Ariel Ávila of Nuevo Arco Iris, a think tank that monitors violence in Colombia. “The government knows that the total defeat of Farc is practically impossible.”

A peace deal might therefore require more than an offer of amnesty on behalf of the government. President Santos has shown signs that he understands this. He has passed a law to redistribute land to the four million internally displaced people in Colombia, most of them dispossessed by elements linked to right-wing paramilitaries that fought the guerrillas alongside the army.

But the risk is that, negotiating from a position of strength, the president will refuse to undertake further reforms that Colombia – the most unequal society on the planet’s socially most unjust continent – needs, especially as forces to his right are indignant just at the news of talks.

“Mr Santos could still force Farc to sign on such reduced terms but that might not mean an end to violence,” said Garry Leech, author of The Farc: The Longest Insurgency. “Today El Salvador and Guatemala have levels of violence comparable to during their civil wars. The reason is because the peace accords in those countries never addressed the structural causes of the war, which were poverty, inequality and exclusion.

“All that happened was that political violence in the form of armed insurgencies morphed into criminal violence which is driven by the same root causes.”