Colombian government negotiators will sit down in Havana today to resume peace talks with Marxist rebels, after a 10-year U.S.-backed military offensive weakened Latin America’s oldest guerrilla movement.
Guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, marked the talks by declaring a two-month halt to attacks from midnight tonight. The presidency, which has repeatedly rejected a cease-fire, didn’t immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment.
The rebels are demanding an end to foreign mining and energy companies profiting from the Andean nation’s oil and mineral wealth and the scrapping of Colombia’s free trade pact with the U.S. The government of President Juan Manuel Santos is insisting the rebels stick to a 5-point agenda, which includes rural development and a search for a solution to drug trafficking.
“We are not going to negotiate Colombia’s development model, or the government’s policies,” the government’s chief negotiator Humberto De La Calle said yesterday at a military airport in Bogota as he left for Cuba. “Nor are we asking the FARC to abandon their ideas.”
The prospect of an end to half a century of bloodshed halted a slide in Santos’ popularity, polls show. That could change if Colombian voters think the government is being too soft on the FARC, said James Robinson, David Florence Professor of Government at Harvard University, who has written a book on Colombia’s economic history.
“The government has to craft something that they can implement and that voters can put up with, and that is a very complicated path to tread,” Robinson said in a phone interview. “Most people are in favor of the process, but when you start looking at specifics they’re much less in favor of making big concessions.”
Santos’ approval ratings rose to 58 percent last month from 51 percent in August, according to a poll by Gallup Colombia published in El Tiempo newspaper. While 72 percent of Colombians back the talks, only 39 expect the two sides to reach an agreement that ends the conflict. The poll of 1,200 people in Colombia’s five biggest cities had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
The outcome of the talks may be decisive in whether Santos is re-elected to a second four-year term in 2014, said Maria Victoria Llorente, Executive Director of Fundacion Ideas Para la Paz, a Bogota-based think tank that monitors the conflict.
Dependent on Talks
“Once more, the future of the presidency of this country is trapped in a process of negotiation with the FARC,” Llorente said in a telephone interview. “Clearly the government of President Santos bet on this, and it’s clearly a bet on re-election.”
After the failure of the last peace talks in 2002, Colombian voters elected President Alvaro Uribe, who advocated a hard line against the FARC. Under his presidency, the government strengthened its armed forces and, backed by U.S. military aid, retook swathes of territory from the guerrillas. Since Santos was elected in 2010, the government has tracked down and killed the group’s top two leaders, and dozens of its mid-level commanders.
Even in their weakened state, the FARC had kept up attacks on army patrols and on the oil industry, which generates about half of the country’s exports. Attacks on oil pipelines almost tripled to 142 in the first ten months of the year, from 52 in the same period in 2011, according to Defense Ministry statistics. Santos has dismissed calls for a cease-fire during the talks.
“Both sides are trying to demonstrate their strength,” said Adam Isacson, a Colombia specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America. “The guerrillas want to show that they are not defeated, and that they don’t have to give up everything at the negotiating table, because they remain a force on the battlefield.”
The guerrilla leader Marquez, a member of the group’s seven- man ruling council whose real name is Luciano Marin Arango, declared the group’s unilateral cease-fire in Havana today. Marquez opened the first meeting in Oslo last month with an attack on Colombia’s super-rich, and on the “demon” of capitalist exploitation of Colombia’s oil and mineral wealth.
The five points on the agenda are agrarian development, political participation, the end of the conflict, a solution to illegal drugs, and the treatment of victims of the conflict.
Tanja Nijmeijer, a Dutch citizen who joined the Marxist guerrilla movement a decade ago, has traveled to Havana for the talks. A U.S. federal grand jury in Washington indicted Nijmeijer and 17 other FARC members for their involvement in the kidnapping of three U.S. citizens, the U.S. Justice Department said in December 2010. The defendants face as many as 60 years in prison if convicted.
The economy could see growth of 6 percent to 7 percent “for decades” if the government strikes a peace deal with the Marxist rebels, Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas said in a September interview. Colombia’s 4.5 percent average growth in the past decade has outpaced Brazil and Mexico, the region’s biggest economies.
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