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General’s release a ‘wakeup call’ for Colombian peace talks

Eitan Abramovich, AFP | People take part in demonstration in Bogota marking two-year anniversary of Colombian peace talks, November 19, 2014

FARC rebels and the Colombian government agreed Wednesday to resume peace talks to end Colombia’s civil conflict after the brief capture of a general by FARC rebels put them on hold, once again showing that securing peace will be difficult.

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Representatives from the Colombian government and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) met on Tuesday in the Cuban capital of Havana, where negotiations have slowly progressed over two years before they were put on the shelf two weeks ago.

President Juan Manuel Santos suspended the peace talks after the capture of General Ruben Dario Alzate on November 16 in the western, jungle-covered Choco department, demanding his release and that of four other war prisoners.

The general was released on Sunday and promptly resigned. In a televised statement he admitted he had ignored usual military procedures, travelling in the conflict zone dressed as a civilian and with no security detail.

His version of the story – Alzate said he was trying to win locals' esteem as part of a humanitarian energy project – has been met with scepticism by many Colombians. It has also raised fear among a growing number of people in the country who support the peace process in Cuba.

“This has been a wake-up call for Colombian society,” said Andrei Gomez-Suarez, an expert on Colombian politics and a professor at the University of Sussex, England, and the University of Los Andes in the Colombian capital of Bogota.

“Many people who back the negotiations actually thought a peace deal was a foregone conclusion,” Gomez-Suarez noted. “Now they see this is not the case and that there is still a long way to go.”

Advantage FARC?

Ironically, the General's capture and release has inspired a new measure of confidence in the FARC, a revolutionary movement inspired by Marxism, but which has turned to drug trafficking, kidnappings and extortion to fund its 50-year armed struggle against Bogota.

According to Gomez-Suarez, the prompt release of Alzate – the highest-ranked army official the rebels had ever snatched – proves the guerrillas are committed to the success of the peace process and are willing to put political strategy ahead of a military one.

The FARC may have shrewdly exploited Alzate’s capture and release to shift the balance of power in negotiations to their side. At Monday’s press conference the general said he had been forced to take part in a “media show”, in reference to a widely circulated photo that shows him in a relaxed pose with a top FARC commander.

FARC propaganda photo shows guerilla commander 'Pastor Alape' (left) posing with captured general Ruben Alzate. 'Pastor Alape' flew to Colombia from Cuba to take part in Alzate's release. The general, who resigned, said he was forced into a 'media show'.
FARC propaganda photo shows guerilla commander 'Pastor Alape' (left) posing with captured general Ruben Alzate. 'Pastor Alape' flew to Colombia from Cuba to take part in Alzate's release. The general, who resigned, said he was forced into a 'media show'.

But the fact remains that rebel leaders in Cuba swiftly and effectively secured the general’s release from his remote jungle prison in just a matter of days.

“It proves that the FARC retains an important degree of unity. The chain of command is intact, contrary to common concerns that the group is fragmented,” said Gomez-Suarez.

Since the start of negotiations in Cuba analysts have speculated on whether an eventual peace deal would ever be respected by isolated FARC forces waging war in remote regions and overseeing links in the profitable drug trade. Those worries have, in part, been lifted.

No ceasefire

Negotiating teams in Havana have so far agreed on three points on a very detailed six-point agenda. The rebels are now calling on the government to review the “rules of the game” in the wake of Santos' unilateral suspension of talks and the general’s successful release.

Many observers expect the FARC to once again push for a bilateral ceasefire, something the president has rejected out of fears the rebels – severely weakened in recent years – will use a respite in fighting to regroup and rearm.

Jean-Jacques Kourliandsky, a Latin America analyst at France’s Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) said a full ceasefire was unlikely, chiefly because previous peace talks based on the precondition of a ceasefire have consistently met with failure.

Representatives of the government and the rebels should be able to return to the negotiating table despite the absence of a battlefield truce, but Kourliandsky said other dangers lay ahead of them.

Opponents to the peace talks, especially former president Alvaro Uribe and his political allies, have tried to convince Colombians that the FARC has been emboldened by an accommodating Santos administration, and is already exploiting the negotiating period to gain strength and firepower.

IRIS’s Kourliandsky said public opinion in Colombia remains divided over the wisdom of negotiating with the FARC, and that Uribe’s anti-negotiations message enjoyed wide appeal.

Gomez-Suarez agreed: “It has only taken one unexpected incident to destroy previous peace talks, and the current ones will face more challenges. Colombians who believe in the negotiations are now realising they will need to stand up to protect the peace process.”

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