The Colombian government knew beforehand that FARC leader “Manuel Marulanda” would not appear at the opening ceremony of failed peace talks that began in 1999, but has kept this quiet deliberately, the country’s former peace commissioner said Wednesday.
One of the most poignant moments was seen at the opening ceremony of the peace talks on January 7 1999, when former president Andres Pastrana addressed the crowd with an empty seat at his side, which should have been filled by the FARC leader Manuel Marulanda.
According to former Peace Commissioner Victor Ricaro, he and the former president were made aware by FARC leader that he would not be attending the peace talks more than a week in advance, due to planned assassination of Ricardo and Marulanda by paramilitary forces.
Until now, common belief has been that the FARC leader had snubbed the talks with no prior notice to the former president.
“He (Marulanda) said that that intention was to kill me and if it was not possible to kill Marulanda on the day of the ceremony. Either death would have seen the end of the peace talks. … with that information Marulanda called me and told me that he would not attend and that he would send representatives to negotiate, as the risk of the murders would be too damaging to the process,” said the then-Peace Commissioner.
Ricardo’s comments are important as they show that Pastrana knew that Marulanda would not attend the peace talks, but still continued the process, and left the FARC founder’s seat empty.
The photo of Pastrana and the empty seat next to him subsequently became a symbol for the FARC’s alleged lack of seriousness to make peace.
The government did not publicly announce the reasons behind Marulanda’s failure to attend, thus vilifying FARC and turning public opinion in favor of the government.
In his interview with El Poli university newspaper Ricardo said: “Of course I, and later Andres Pastrana knew that Marulanda would not attend. Of course that hurt the process but we couldn’t as a government justify his lack of attendance, so I never said anything and I’ve been very sparing, careful and reserved until now that I’m telling the story.”
It appears that the former president was perfectly aware of the concerns of FARC, who had discovered three paramilitary assassins had entered the demilitarized zone eight days before the proposed start of the talks, and one of whom had admitted to have been sent to kill FARC leader Marulanda.
FARC also suggested that the would-be assassins aimed to kill peace commissioner Ricardo as a means of fingering the blame on FARC and again derailing the peace talks.
Ricardo went as far as to say that the FARC leader warned him about the threat to his safety by paramilitaries, and upped security by FARC forces in San Vicente del Caguan, where the peace talks were held as a means of protecting him, and thus ensuring the peace talks would continue.
FARC leader Marulanda allegedly stated that his attendance was not necessary as the negotiations were with FARC, not with him, and that he didn’t want an assassination attempt to stop the peace process.
When pressured by Ricardo about the importance of his attendance at the peace talks, not leaving the president to face the public alone, Marulanda allegedly responded:
“Its not the president that they are going to kill. It´s me or you that they want dead.”
All of these new facts are contrary to the image portrayed by the empty seat spectacle which led the public to believe that FARC were not committed to the peace process.
Pastrana bites back
On his Twitter account, Pastrana said that “what V.G Ricardo said, besides being a lie, is absurd!”
Pastrana has been defended by his former secretary Camilo Gomez, who claims that Pastrana was only informed that the FARC leader would not attend the talks five minutes before he went on stage at the “Empty chair” ceremony.
Gomez goes on the state that Pastrana attended the ceremony with his son, something which would never have occurred if he knew there was the chance of an assassination attempt, and that there is no way that former presidents and ambassadors would have been invited to the event, had the government known Marulanda would not attend.
The 1999 to 2002, peace talks between Colombia’s largest guerrilla group FARC and government representatives in a designated safe zone in El Caguan, south west Colombia, came to nothing after 3 years at the table, and the government placed the failure in the hands of the FARC rebels refusal to comply with basic demands and ceasefires.
The famous image of Pastrana sitting alone at a table with an empty white seat beside him has been used as an image of FARC’s de-railing of the peace talks, and as a token of their lack of commitment to putting an end to the conflict which has lasted more than 50 years in Colombia.