FARC peace talks enter second year with thorny issues still on the agenda

Colombian government and observers fear a major attack would derail negotiations

President Juan Manuel Santos during his speech before the UN General Assembly in September.
President Juan Manuel Santos during his speech before the UN General Assembly in September.REUTERS

When negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla rebels began, President Juan Manuel Santos predicted that the talks would last no more than a year before a peace accord was reached to bring to an end the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s insurgency.

Tuesday marks the first anniversary of the beginning of those talks in Havana with both sides far from agreeing to a deal to draw a line under the 50-year guerrilla war that has claimed thousands of lives in Colombia.

Only two points of an agreed-upon six-tier agenda have been partially resolved by the end of the first year with the thornier issues still to be tackled. And with the Colombian presidential election coming up in June, the ongoing talks will no doubt be a major focus in the race.

Despite the uncertainties that still need to be addressed, negotiators believe that what has been accomplished so far can be seen as a gigantic democratic step that will eventually lead to peace after many decades of conflict.

Before the talks began, one of the rules agreed to by both sides was not to give out any details of how the private negotiations were playing out in Havana until there was a final agreement on all six points – no partial agreements will be reached.

The two points on which the Colombian government and the FARC have reached accords are on agrarian reform and the guerillas’ future participation in politics once the rebels are demobilized – the second point was negotiated earlier this month.

The agreement for political participation centers on the guarantees the guerrillas will have to be able to form their own opposition party. Thirty years ago, thousands of members of one party that agreed to take in demobilized rebels at the behest of the government were murdered by paramilitaries.

They are not going to abandon their objectives, but it is clear that their strategy is negotiation”

The announcement on November 6 that both sides had come to terms on the political participation issue offered relief to some. With the exception of former President Álvaro Uribe – who has been dead set against the talks since day one – and his supporters, the Colombian political sector believes that there is no turning back on an eventual peace agreement.

Nevertheless, both sides have left open for later discussions thorny specifics such as how a political party will be formed after the FARC rebels lay down their weapons, or whether guerrilla leaders will be allowed to run for office – a legal matter for the courts.

Prior to the opening of the Havana talks last year, the FARC refused to call a ceasefire while the negotiations took place. The government, for its part, has continued to deal blows to the rebels in the jungle while the guerrillas persevere with their attacks on police outposts and other facilities.

But now, this ongoing struggle has started to threaten the negotiations. When Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón revealed recently there was a plot to murder former President Uribe, the government’s chief negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, said any such attempt would most certainly derail the talks.

Writing in the news weekly Semana, columnist León Valencia agreed. “The process may be irreversible when it comes to the dynamics at the negotiating table, but it would all fall apart if a catastrophe were to occur.”

In fact, Pinzón’s announcement about the assassination plot has generated speculation that the FARC is actually divided at this point.

Camilo González Posso, director of the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Indepaz), said that the FARC has never previously shown any desire to negotiate a truce. “This doesn’t mean that they are going to abandon all their objectives, but it is clear that their strategy is one of negotiation,” he said.

Negotiators began a new round on Monday in Havana, now focusing on the third point: the fight against drug trafficking. Included in these discussions are ways to implement alternative social programs to stem the tide of coca growers and traffickers.

The FARC’s top chief, Timoleón Jiménez, alias “Timochenko,” has announced that the rebels are prepared to contribute to prevention and health programs, which could lead to the legalization of certain types of drugs, according to the FARC’s official website.

No one, however, expects the FARC to acknowledge that it has links to traffickers.

But the drug problem isn’t the most sensitive issue left on the agenda. There still remains the matter of punishment for past crimes, and no one knows how far the FARC will go in terms of accepting anything in the way of jail terms for its members.

“This is the gist of the entire negotiations: whether there will be jail time, if there will be prison benefits, if only the guerrillas will have to face punishment or will others who formed part of the conflict [civilians and military officers] also be held accountable,” said González Passo.

“When it comes to justice and victims, the ball is in the FARC’s court,” De la Calle told Semana this week. “The question to be asked is not what types of concessions the Colombian government may offer, but instead how the FARC will assume its responsibility in dealing with the victims, making reparations, telling the truth, and offering guarantees that it will never happen again.”

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