As Colombia prepares to sign a historic peace deal with the FARC guerrillas on Monday that will bring an end to the hemisphere’s longest and bloodiest civil conflict, perhaps no one has devoted more years to the agreement than Frank Pearl.
Official negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) began in Havana in November 2012, but Pearl started reaching out to the guerrilla leaders, in secret, in 2009, at the behest of then-president Alvaro Uribe.
Sitting in his Bogotá apartment ahead of a trip to Miami this week, where he planned to meet with Colombian business and community leaders skeptical of the peace deal, Pearl, 54, said he understands their fears.
In 2000, he and his family fled to Miami after FARC guerrillas kidnapped his wife’s grandfather and then came after his wife. But he said that 52 years of combat with the FARC have left the country with few options but to give peace a chance.
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“It’s time to turn the page and let go of the anger, fear and thirst for revenge,” he said. “Those are valid, legitimate and human feelings because we’re made of flesh and bone. But those feelings aren’t going to let us build our country’s future.”
Pearl (born to a Canadian father and Colombian mother) was doing double duty as Uribe’s High Commissioner for Reintegration, the government agency responsible for bringing former combatants into the fold, and his Peace Commissioner, when the president asked him to quietly begin reaching out to the FARC.
Working through Henry Acosta, a businessman from the small town of Génova, Quindío, who happened to have grown up with FARC Commander Pablo Catatumbo, Pearl started sending messages to the guerrilla high command.
By 2010, that epistolary relationship had set the stage for a secret meeting in Brazil.
“Everything was ready and we had verbal agreements to meet,” Pearl said. “But unfortunately, that’s when the break occurred.”
The “break” was the falling out between Uribe and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Colombia was accusing the socialist administration of turning a blind-eye to FARC camps in Venezuela. Amid the tensions, the rebels canceled the Brazil meeting and said peace could wait until the next administration.
When Colombia made its accusations against Venezuela public during a special meeting of the OAS in July 2010, Chávez broke off diplomatic ties and militarized the border.
Pearl said he thought the FARC negotiations had become collateral damage in the Chávez-Uribe spat.
“Our hypothesis was that Chávez, seeing that he was cut out of that first meeting, used his influence on the FARC” to scuttle the reunion, Pearl said.
Although Uribe is one of the most vocal opponents of the current peace deal, Pearl said his former boss seemed genuine in his attempts to begin negotiations with the rebels. Although he knew the clock was running out on his term, he was “hoping to plant the seed” for future talks, Pearl said. So their sudden cancellation was “disconcerting.”
By that point Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s tough-talking minister of defense, had won the presidential election on June 20 campaigning as a hawk. The day after his victory, he called Pearl to ask for a full briefing on the peace efforts.
Pearl says he met Santos and shared his four tenants of negotiations: There had to be a secret phase of the talks where an agenda could be hammered out; the conversations couldn’t take place in Colombia, under the glare of the media and the public eye; the military had to be at the negotiating table; and there had to be buy-in from the region, particularly neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador.
There were very mixed emotions, because we were sitting in front of people who had committed enormous atrocities, and they were facing representatives of a government they considered illegitimate and unjust.
When Santos was sworn in on Aug. 7, he told the country that he had “the key to peace” in his pocket and hoped to use it. He also extended an olive branch to Chávez.
Those announcements were aimed at salvaging the progress made with the FARC thus far, Pearl said.
On Sept. 7, once again working through Henry Acosta, Santos sent a message to Catatumbo seeking to renew talks. Eventually both sides agreed to meet in Havana, not Brazil as originally planned.
“Cuba was basically safer for the FARC,” Pearl explained. “By that point, the conversation had matured to the point that it was no longer going to be a matter of meeting for three hours or three days, but to begin a secret phase where we would build an agenda.”
The first of those secret meetings took place in February 2012, in Havana’s Laguito diplomatic compound. On the government’s side were Pearl, Santos’ brother, Enrique Santos, and Sergio Jaramillo, the high commissioner for peace and the head of the government’s negotiating team during the preliminary stage. Among the guerrilla leaders were Mauricio Jaramillo, Andrés Paris and Rodrigo Granda.
The meetings were tense, Pearl recalls.
“There were very mixed emotions, because we were sitting in front of people who had committed enormous atrocities,” he said. “And they were facing representatives of a government they considered illegitimate and unjust.”
In those initial stages both sides were prodding, gauging their opponents. There was no easy banter.
“Cynicism, silence, stubbornness, anger — both real and simulated — humor, they were all tools to advance the negotiation,” he said. “In that moment it was a real war and if the talks broke down there was nothing to do but say, ‘Bye, and let’s keep killing each other for the rest of our lives.’”
That didn’t happen. On Sept. 4, 2012, Santos announced to the world that, for the first time in more than a decade, peace talks with the FARC would begin.
During the following four years, government chief negotiator Humberto de la Calle and peace commissioner Jaramillo would be the public face of the talks, but Pearl remained on the team. The talks plowed along through highs and lows, outbreaks of violence and setbacks. But last month, on Aug. 24, the two sides announced they had completed negotiations.
On Monday, Santos and the FARC’s maximum leader, Rodrigo Londoño, better known as Timoleón Jiménez, will meet in the Colombian port city of Cartagena to sign the historic deal.
On Oct. 2, Colombians here and abroad will have the chance to either accept or reject the pact during a plebiscite. Polls show most Colombians are prepared to accept the deal despite worries that it lets the FARC leadership off the hook too easily.
Pearl says he understands those concerns.
“We have a solution that isn’t perfect but it is good, and it’s far better than the scenario we were living in before,” he said.
Colombia’s conflict has left more than 220,000 dead and more than 6 million displaced, and has been particularly devastating for the rural poor.
“What’s not reasonable is to be living abroad and yet be opposed to the people who are stuck here in the middle of the conflict and now have a way to save their lives and have a better future,” he said.
For Colombian exiles in the business community, he said, peace is an opportunity.
“It’s a safer and calmer country, where half of the nation is left to be discovered,” he said. “What we have here are business opportunities. [Exiles] should be looking at Colombia like Cubans see Cuba: full of opportunities.”
As for Pearl, he’s not sure what his future holds. When he came home after his last trip to Cuba he said it dawned on him that his 10-year-old daughter had grown up while he was jetting back and forth to Cuba.
Asked if he might consider running for public office, he said he had too much catching up to do.
“The only campaign I’ll be involved in,” he said, “will be the campaign to be allowed back into my home after being away for so long.”