As government and guerrilla negotiators begin the 34th round of peace talks in Cuba on Tuesday in hopes of ending Colombia’s half-century conflict, they’re going to have a powerful force behind them: momentum.
In the last several weeks, the two sides have made life-saving breakthroughs to reduce violence even as the talks, which started in October 2012, inch along.
Last week, President Juan Manuel Santos declared a one-month halt in air-force bombings against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. That concession came after the rebels declared a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire in December that, despite scattered skirmishes, authorities say is being honored.
In addition, the FARC recently vowed to quit recruiting children and agreed to help identify and clear anti-personnel mines, which have maimed or killed at least 11,068 people since 1990.
The drumbeat of good news comes as the country itself is warming up to the process. In a Gallup poll released this month, 72 percent of Colombians said they favored a negotiated peace agreement and 53 percent believed peace might be possible this time.
The talks are going on behind closed doors in Havana, but both sides insist progress is being made. The negotiators have already reached partial agreements on agricultural and land reform, the FARC’s future participation in politics, and how to extract the group from the lucrative cocaine trade.
Even so, there are thorny issues ahead. Among them is justice: How will the government hold the FARC accountable for its crimes and still get the guerrilla high command to agree to a peace deal? (Both the United States and Colombia classify the group as a terrorist organization.)
Reparations for victims is another delicate issue that needs to be resolved. And finally, the two sides have to hammer out how the guerrillas, thought to number less than 8,000 fighters, will turn in their arms and be reincorporated into civilian life.
“I can’t guarantee that we’ll have an agreement, but all the signs suggest we’re headed in the right direction,” Santos told Spain’s El Pais newspaper this month. “We’re heading toward the end of the conflict but we still lack the most difficult parts, and [peace] negotiations always break down in the most difficult parts.”
FARC members, too, have said they’re hopeful. In an article posted on their website about the last round of talks that ended March 7, they cited meetings between Colombian military officials and FARC commanders as a positive step. In addition, they said they had “frank, useful and productive” meetings with Washington’s special envoy to the peace talks, Bernie Aronson.
On Monday, Santos held the first meeting of a new body called the Advisory Commission for Peace, which includes political figures and former presidents — including some who have been vocal critics of the process.
In a news conference after the meeting, Santos said the commission’s job is to challenge him and his negotiators to guarantee that different points of view are being reflected and that the peace is as solid as possible.
“I repeat: This peace doesn’t belong to Juan Manuel Santos or even to my government,” he said. “This peace belongs to all Colombians and that’s why this input is so important to us.”
There’s one major figure, however, who says he won’t participate in the commission: former President Alvaro Uribe.
Uribe, who is perhaps the most high-profile detractor of the talks, has said he fears that they will let the FARC off the hook. But during the weekend, even he seemed to concede that some sort of negotiated deal is inevitable.
In an open letter, he asked the government to slow down the pace of talks.
“We suggest that it’s better to prolong the period of conversations, as long as necessary, to avoid signing agreements that will harm our democracy,” he wrote. He also asked that the FARC guerrillas be concentrated into defined areas so that their unilateral ceasefire could be monitored.
Speaking to state-run television Monday, Santos scoffed at the idea of slowing down a process that has been going on for more than two years.
“It is absolutely illogical — why prolong things?” he said. “If we can reach an agreement quickly, why not reach an agreement quickly?”