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Colombians eye peace talks with hope and scepticism

Representatives of the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas are set to begin their first peace talks in a decade on Thursday in Oslo. While Colombians largely back the negotiations, past failures have left many sceptical.


Peace talks to end the longest-running armed conflict in Latin America are set to start on Thursday as representatives of Colombia’s government and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) meet in Norway. Previous attempts to end the war, which has been raging for 48 years, have ended in failure, but observers say there are reasons to be optimistic.

The Colombian government delegation set to launch a formal peace process with leftist rebels in Norway delayed its departure Sunday due to poor weather, a source close to the negotiating team said.
(Source: AFP)

According to Gimena Sanchez, a senior associate with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights advocacy group, the two sides have changed considerably since the last attempt at peace, and both camps appear committed to the current effort.

“President Santos has shown himself to be pragmatic, proposing armed groups a way out of war,” Sanchez explained. “The FARC are fragmented and weakened. They pledged to stop kidnapping civilians and agreed to hold these talks outside the country – a point they have never been open to before.”

The first stage of the talks, which were delayed for a week as judicial authorities scrambled to lift arrest warrants for rebel negotiators, is being hosted in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. During a second stage talks will relocate to Cuba, where secret preliminary meetings were held earlier this year.

A meeting of 'heavyweights'

President Juan Manuel Santos has said the talks would be organised around five points: reforms to help Colombia’s rural poor, the possibility for rebels to exercise political rights when they lay down arms, ending the FARC’s ties to the cocaine trade, re-integrating guerrilla soldiers back into society, and providing assistance to families of victims who want information about atrocities committed during the conflict.

Daniel Pécaut, a Colombia expert at France’s Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales (EHESS), said previous talks had never been as carefully prepared or had such a precise agenda. He also suggested that the flexibility demonstrated so far was an encouraging sign of both parties’ “seriousness”.

Analysts say each group’s choice of negotiators is further indication of a genuine commitment. The government is sending a prominent business leader in addition to a former head of the army and a retired police chief.

“These heavyweights represent groups that have been the most resistant to peace; their influence could make it easier for them to go back and convince those sectors to agree to compromises,” Sanchez said.

While the FARC’s top commanders have been killed by military strikes over the past four years, Sanchez noted that the rebels' negotiating team also seemed to include some of the group’s most prominent surviving figures.

Generational divide

The talks have been widely praised outside Colombia, with the European Union, the United Nations and the White House welcoming the initiative. US President Barack Obama has said the diplomatic push could help “all Colombians to live with greater peace, security, and prosperity.”

However, WOLA’s Sanchez said reactions have been more guarded inside Colombia, where the public has witnessed four previous peace attempts “crash and burn”.

According to Alberto Martinez, Professor of Communications at Universidad del Norte in the city of Barranquilla, there is a “collective exhaustion” over the decades-long war and most of the population is ready for peace.

Indeed, recent opinion polls show that as many as 77 percent of Colombians agree the government should engage the rebels in talks. However, the country is much more divided about their outcome. Between 45 percent and 54 percent of people surveyed think the talks will be successful, while around 41 percen think they will fail.

Martinez said there was a sharp divide between older and younger generations. “Older Colombians are conscious of the ideological origins of the FARC, they have seen their evolution and especially seen much more violence. In general they think the path of negotiation is the right one.

“But young people tend to see the FARC as common criminals and don’t see why the government should negotiate with ‘delinquents’,” the scholar said.

Will agreement mean peace?

In addition to scepticism back home, negotiating teams will likely face other hurdles on the path to peace, starting with the absence of a ceasefire.

Observers hope the two sides will agree to a bilateral truce early in the talks, mindful of the fact that an escalation of violence during previous negotiations has spoiled things before.

They also warn of external groups that are opposed to a peace agreement and could try to torpedo the process.

According to EHESS’s Pécaut, those include members of the Colombian government close to former president Alvaro Uribe who prefer a “military solution” to end the insurgency, as well as rebels who could decide to disavow the FARCs leadership.

“Even if a political agreement is reached, and that would be quite an achievement, it may not mean an end to violence,” Pécaut said. “It’s uncertain to what extent the FARC can remain a cohesive group.”

“The biggest threat overall is the ongoing drug trade,” added Sanchez, pointing to both rebels and paramilitary groups who deal directly in lucrative drug trafficking and would see little motivation to demobilize.

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