HAVANA: Negotiators for the Colombian government of President Juan Manuel Santos and leftist FARC rebels meet in Havana yesterday for talks aimed at ending Latin America’s longest-running insurgency.
The conflict has dragged on for nearly half a century, taken tens of thousands of lives, displaced millions of people and proven intractable in three previous peace processes.
Chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said he believed this is “the defining moment” to reach a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia 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 Sunday, and envisaged that “the FARC would be turned into a legal political party.”
Negotiations to reach a final deal will likely last “months, not years,” de la Calle said.
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 end.
Support for the FARC would best be gauged in an election, according to 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 some 9,200 armed fighters, may be ready for a truce after a long string of setbacks.
In recent years several top FARC have been captured or killed, the group suffered military defeats, and its ranks have dropped to half the number of fighters compared to their peak in the 1990s.
But some remain skeptical of the peace effort — the first of its kind since 1992 — 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 Nov. 15, but were delayed to clarify the role of civilian representatives.
The talks, the fourth attempt at peace between the government 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 one percent of the population, according to a 2011 UN report.
“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 website Razon Publica.
“The rural issue is a golden bridge that allows the guerrillas to get out of the conflict and enter mainstream politics,” he said.
But 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 government troops.
According to the United Nations, hundreds of thousands of people have died and four million have been driven from their homes in a conflict that also involves a smaller guerrilla army and right-wing paramilitary groups.
Ivan Marquez, a member of the FARC’s secretariat, will lead a delegation of about 30 people at the talks, which were formally begun last month in Norway.
Norway is a guarantor of the process, along with Cuba.
Officials want the talks held in the strictest possible secrecy, which is likely the reason they are in Cuba, where the government is expert at keeping information close to the vest and the press at bay.
Venezuela and Chile also will have representatives at the talks.
A top Colombian rebel negotiator has meanwhile announced a unilateral cease-fire at the start of peace talks in Havana. Ivan Marquez says the FARC has decided to stop all military operations and acts of sabotage from midnight through Jan. 20.
Marquez made the announcement yesterday before heading in with the rest of the FARC delegation for talks at a Havana convention center.
Colombian government negotiators have not yet responded to the overture, and Marquez has refused to take any questions.
Cuba is playing host to the talks in Havana following an initial round of discussions in Oslo, Norway. The FARC has been at war with the Colombian government for nearly half a century.