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Santos plays his hand

Peace talks between Bogota and FARC rebels are progressing but the road remains long

The president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, will see out 2013 on the back of a favorable wind concerning his chances of re-election for a second term next May. The national economy confirmed its solidity with 5.1-percent growth in the third quarter; opinion polls show that the incumbent's popularity, which had plummeted to 29 percent at one stage, has rebounded; and the ongoing peace talks with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels in Havana have reaped two tangible results: agreements on land distribution and rural development, and future political participation, two of the six points on the agenda.

Based on a well-defined set of criteria in order to avoid the pitfalls that brought previous talks to nothing, this dialogue has been conducted in a serious manner. But now the most difficult path opens up before the two sides. When the government and the FARC resume their positions at the negotiating table on January 13, the topics to be discussed are drug trafficking (one of the rebels' primary sources of income), the victims of the 50-year-long conflict, the eventual to end to the fighting and the application of these agreements. Integral to these issues is the most delicate subject of all: the legal future of the guerrillas, and their leaders in particular. The FARC's victims and the public at large will not easily accept any end-game that paves the way for impunity.

With public opinion stacked against them - polls show 93 percent of Colombian society is against the rebels' ideology — the FARC is hoping that talks bring about a constituent assembly in order to "rebuild the nation." It has even put forward a proposal for its composition: 141 representatives, of which the FARC would be awarded a designated quota and therefore avoid the inconvenience of going to the ballot box. It is worth remembering that Colombia has, since 1991, been in possession of a Constitution that was arrived at by broad consensus. It is abundantly clear that the government must not stray from its content or elude its responsibility to put the eventual fruits of the Havana negotiations to a referendum.

Blood spilled

Months of hazardous talks are drawing near, not only because the FARC continues to spill the nation's lifeblood — in 2013, more than 2,000 attacks were carried out — but also because these talks will be held simultaneously with general election campaigns. Santos has played his hand and his audacity merits recognition. But to mix objectives and succumb to the temptation to force through an agreement with the guerrillas would have catastrophic consequences for the future of Colombia, setting back the necessary process of reconciliation after five decades of bloody confrontation.

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