BOGOTA -- Colombia’s peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia produced its first dividend Monday, when the nation’s largest guerrilla group declared a unilateral ceasefire.
In a statement from Havana, where both sides are meeting, the FARC’s chief negotiator and second-in-command Iván Márquez ordered his troops to suspend attacks on the military and end sabotage on public and private infrastructure from midnight Monday through Jan. 20.
Márquez said the two-month reprieve was necessary “to strengthen the climate of understanding needed by both sides to begin these talks.”
Colombian Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón, however, said the government was constitutionally obliged to keep up the pressure on FARC “criminals.”
“We hope they will keep their promise,” Pinzón said of the ceasefire. “But history has shown us that the terrorist organization never keeps its promises.”
Before heading to Cuba on Sunday, the government’s chief negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, said that all military concessions are off the table.
“Ceasefires in the past have meant advantages for the guerrillas that we cannot repeat,” he said.
Many here remember the 1999 peace process, when the government demilitarized an area the size of Switzerland to try to hammer out an agreement with the FARC.
Negotiations eventually broke down and many blamed the détente for allowing the guerrillas to regroup, strengthen and wreak havoc during the next decade.
Monday’s ceasefire announcement came as negotiators began closed-door talks in Havana that might lead to the demobilization of the 48-year-old guerrilla group. Reporters at the convention center where the talks are taking place said access to negotiators was limited and information was scarce.
The government has been tight-lipped during the process and warned the FARC that discretion will be key to the success of the process.
Land rights fight
What is known is that the first item on the agenda is one of the thorniest: land rights and agricultural development.
According to the United Nations 2011 Human Development Report, Colombia has “one of the highest inequality rates in rural property [ownership] in Latin America and the world.”
About 54 percent of the large land tracts are in the hands of 1.2 percent of the population, a situation that has helped fuel rural violence, the report said.
During the negotiators’ only joint news conference in Norway in October, Márquez called land rights “the historic cause of class conflict” in Colombia.
The administration of President Juan Manuel Santos has embarked on an ambitious land-restitution program that has been issuing titles to farmers, many of whom had been forced off their property by violence.
Agriculture Minister Juan Camilo Restrepo Salazar, who is in charge of the process, said that of the 28,000 claims his office is handling about 35 percent blame the FARC for losing their land.
“This law is not up for negotiation — not in Havana, not in Oslo, not anywhere,” Restrepo said in a statement.
But Márquez has called the restitution efforts “a trap.”
“It’s a form of legal eviction,” Márquez said in October in Oslo. “Once they have the titles in their hands, farmers have no recourse but to sell or lease their land to multinationals and financial conglomerates whose only interest is pillaging the mining and energy resources that are beneath it.”
Founded in 1964 with Marxist underpinnings, the FARC has increasingly turned to drug trafficking and extortion to finance its survival. Thought to number about 9,000 members, the FARC is considered a terrorist group by the United States and Colombia.
Santos surprised the nation in August when he announced that secret talks in Havana had opened the door to a peace process. Cuba and Norway are guarantors of the talks; Venezuela and Chile are official observers. This cycle of talks is expected to last about 10 days, and the government has said it wants to wrap-up the entire process in a matter of months, not years.