BOGOTA -- Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed late Monday that his administration is in negotiations with the nation’s largest guerrilla group as he hopes to bring the country’s 50-year civil conflict to an end.
In a brief speech, Santos said that he would pursue talks even as he keeps up military pressure on the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, or FARC. He also said the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN, would also be included in a peace process.
“From the first day of my government I have fulfilled my constitutional obligation to search for peace,” he said. “We have been in exploratory conversations with the FARC to try to bring an end to the conflict.”
The confirmation comes after Colombian and Venezuelan news outlets had been reporting that Santos would announce peace talks in coming days.
Colombia’s RCN Radio and Venezuela’s TeleSur television reported that a preliminary framework for the talks had been reached in Cuba and that formal negotiations could begin as early as next month in Norway. It would mark the first time since 1999 that the country has acknowledged holding formal talks.
Santos’ remarks confirm rumors that had building for months. Former President Alvaro Uribe, in particular, has accused the government of engaging in secret negotiations behind the nation’s back.
Luis Eduardo Celis, a political analyst with Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, which follows the conflict, said any dialogue with the guerrillas is positive, but he said Santos would need to produce results to keep the political tide form turning against him.
“His credibility will be at stake,” Celis said.
But talk of peace isn’t likely to translate to peace on the ground in the short term. The FARC and the government are likely to step up attacks in the run-up to negotiations, said Jeremy McDermott, the director of InSight – Organized Crime in the Americas, a non-profit that studies criminality in the hemisphere.
“They will seek to arrive at the negotiating table with the strongest hand they possibly can,” he said. On Monday, Santos said military operations would continue on “every centimeter of national territory.”
And the FARC has also been stepping up attacks in recent months, particularly on vital infrastructure.
Founded in 1964 with Marxist underpinnings, the FARC has increasingly resorted to drug trafficking and extortion to finance its survival. Many of its top leaders are facing extradition to the United States on drug charges, which would likely be a bone of contention in any negotiations.
Many in Colombia remember the 1999 peace process, when the violence-weary government demilitarized an area the size of Switzerland to try to hammer out an agreement with the rebels. Negotiations eventually broke down and many blamed the détente for allowing the guerrillas to regroup, strengthen and wreak havoc over the next decade.
On Monday, Santos said the country would “learn from past mistakes.”
The negotiations are likely to have deep political implications as Santos looks toward the 2014 presidential race. While a peace deal would make him a national hero, any setbacks will be seized by his adversaries, including Uribe, who has vowed to run a candidate against him.
On Sunday, Uribe referred to the rumored negotiations as he summed up Santos’ 24 months in office.
“Two years of clandestine talks, demoralizing the armed forces, weakening security and legitimizing [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez, protector of terrorists,” he wrote on Twitter.
Such attacks are likely to increase once talks get underway.
“The FARC are going to have an influence on the elections, and the 2014 results will depend on what happens from here on out,” Lázaro José Vivero Paniz, a columnist and former government negotiator in the 1999 peace process, wrote The Miami Herald. “Because this has become an election issue, there are many people who’ll want to play their cards either for or against it.”
For the time being, Santos may have the country behind him.
According to a poll by the Centro Nacional de Consultoría, published in El Tiempo Sunday, 74 percent of the population is in favor of peace talks.
In Monday’s speech, Santos said he would be providing more details in coming days.
“But Colombians can fully trust that the government is working with prudence and seriousness,” he said, “putting the welfare and peace of all the country’s inhabitants first.”